“I just bagged the elephant”
We Some films are carried by a once in a lifetime performance that takes you along for a ride greater than itself. Oliver Stone’s Wall Street is one of them. Written with Stanley Weiser, Stone, fresh off a huge Oscar run with Platoon the previous year, wanted to get right back to work, avoiding the inertia he said ruins many award-winners basking in their own glory. It’s an attitude hewing closely to the themes of the film and its blue collar versus white collar factions—young hot shots making millions at the expense of the old guard working 80-hours a week. Both worlds can implode with one bad deal and it’s a parasitic relationship at best. For the stockbrokers moving investment banker money, the failures of the little man actually mean huge dividends if played advantageously. Morality finds a way to be inconsequential when the cash earned is on the backs of an anonymous unlucky population having to go home penniless and broken. When those poor souls start to bear resemblance to old friends and, god forbid, family, one needs to decide whether the money is worth the loss of salvation.
And that is the main point of Stone’s film, showing how one can go astray, but still find the humanity to steer back. We all make mistakes; it’s the most human thing there is. How many of us can admit the transgression and work towards rectifying it, however, despite the consequences? Listening to Michael Douglas’s Gordon Gekko converse with Daryl Hannah’s Darien Taylor about their ability to not let love and emotion interfere with the endgame of abundant success shows there are a number who won’t. Here is a man whose only friends are those that can help him make more green. Anyone brought in close enough to matter must pull their weight or else they’re cut loose without a second glance. Cutthroat is an understatement and human connections overrated. An Oscar winning role itself, Douglas shows the ruthlessness behind a Cheshire grin and all the deceit shrouded by promises of fortune. You want to love this smooth-talking crook, only making money for others if he gets five fold in return. He is the person we all wish we had a black enough heart to become. Guilt-free profiteering at its finest.
The story itself is a simple allegory of wealth opposite love. We all need to make the choice—a brilliant elevator exchange between the father/son duo of Martin Sheen’s Carl Fox and Charlie Sheen’s Bud expresses it with shocked silence and a quiet questioning of the elder’s job raising his son. We watch Bud go from wide-eyed youthful exuberance to entitlement by aligning with Gekko. Seeking to catch a break cold-calling prospective clientele, his white whale is seemingly a dream, a man behind a secretary that refuses to be bothered by yet another fresh-faced kid with nothing to offer. His last-ditch effort to get a foot in the door falls to a piece of privileged information told in passing about a court ruling hypothetically opening an airline up to expansion and huge revenue. Hiding the identity of who told him the juicy stock tip helps quell the feelings of criminal activity, a Boy Scout mentality that almost loses his biggest client a day after he’s acquired. The only way to remain useful is to follow leads with bigger ones; everyone around town is dabbling in insider trading and Bud already saw how ‘harmless’ his first go round was. This panicked act for survival finds him in the Devil’s back pocket.
Sheen does well in the role, always naïve, even when on top. The ascension is so quick that he never gets the opportunity to take a breath and look around—exactly what Gekko desires since the less his protégée sees, the better off he is from getting double-crossed. If someone sees enough perks from the life of success, any remnants of a soul soon disappear. The longer Bud stays on top, the harder it will be for him to care about the lives he is trampling over by sitting in his expensive suit and sipping on drinks in his professionally designed loft apartment. Ever the idealist, though, Sheen reaches his moment of clarity at a business meeting he just happened to be in the right place at the right time for. Ushered in by college friend and business partner Roger (James Spader), the stark realization of who Gekko is and how much alike they’ve become drops his jubilant smile, replacing it with a sweaty brow and pale face devoid of color. He has become the man he was raised to abhor.
Douglas’s Gekko chews pawns up and spits them out, keeping the ones as amoral as him on the payroll while watching those who couldn’t cut it fall for their troubles. His lawyer by his side, all those doing his dirty work sign contracts separating their dealings and severing any ties connecting nefarious activities to the big man. He is the newly anointed King of Wall Street, one who was raised with meager means and built himself an empire out of nothing, holding that success close to the vest and important above all else. This is the boss who ‘paid his dues’ and lets others engage in illegal affairs for the chance to be near greatness, all the while he is pocketing the most by doing next to nothing. A flashy man to look up to, Bud becomes enchanted with the prospect of doing the things his father never could. The chasm between Douglas and Sheen cannot be any wider, proving to be one of the many conventionalities utilized in the story—a good versus evil structure able to exist due to the dynamic magnetism of Gekko raising the simplicity of the plot to greater heights.
Bud has his fair share of stereotypes entering into his life on both sides of the coin. Besides his father’s honest union leader, never taking a bribe or speaking out of turn for his men, there is Hal Holbrook’s sage Lou Mannheim at the office. A man who made a boatload, but saw it all disappear, he never shows the kind of anguish the others do, knowing he did his job by the rules with hard work and ethics. His cryptic advice sprinkled throughout could seem unrealistic and cheesy, but the world Stone has created already finds itself in a heightened reality. The archetypes of protagonist and antagonist are so clearly delineated that the inclusion of clichéd supporting roles never appears out of place; in fact it’s normal. Even Hannah’s Darien is the usual high-price, high-taste woman looking for someone to sustain her lifestyle. The fact she can love is so shocking that watching her walk away from it to find success over survival doesn’t surprise. Bud entrenches himself into the life he always hoped for, achieved by lengths he never thought he’d go. The American dream is easy when you think about it; being able to accomplish it with pride intact is the tricky part.
Wall Street 8/10 | ★ ★ ★