Gordon Gekko returns

Oliver Stone’s new Wall Street sequel contains moments of gimmicky directorial over-reach, self-congratulation, wild implausibility, and hackneyed sermonizing.

It’s also a brilliant film.

Stone’s style is often a bit too much for me, but his Wall Street films are American classics.  His ambition in both films is tragedy on a Shakespearean scale, and Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps is worth the risk.  It is a visually beautiful film, from the glittering shots of Manhattan to the Goya masterpiece that hangs over its villain’s fireplace—Saturn Devouring His Son—and its soundtrack is great.

But best of all is Michael Douglas’ Gordon Gekko, a character on a tragic scale.  When he emerges from prison at the beginning of the film, there’s something in him of King Lear, alone, broke, and abandoned by his family.  As he strides the stage at Fordham University, lecturing on his new book, Is Greed Good?, his hair white and wavy, railing against the real estate bubble, debt, and lack of accountability in the American economy, he has something in him of an Old Testament prophet, an Amos or a Jeremiah.  Gekko’s prophetic aura is heightened by the fact that the movie starts out in the weeks just before the stock market crash of 2008, a crash which he predicts.

If you haven’t seen the movie, stop reading and come back when you have, for the slick-haired Gordon Gekko we came to despise in the first Wall Street is not dead but only dormant.  As the movie progresses we realize that Gekko has less in him of Lear—more sinned against than sinning—and more in him of Macbeth’s limitless ambition.  He is a man of giant emotions, yes, but also of the coldest, most cynical calculation.

Gekko has more depth in Money Never Sleeps than in the original Wall Street because, in addition to the slicked-back charm and cutthroat greed, his character has been humanized a bit.  He has suffered and feels certain fatherly emotions, even if he still is Gordon Gekko, financial pirate.  We believe him when he says in the film’s final scene, “Human beings—you gotta give ’em a break—we’re all mixed bags.”

Gekko’s character also gains our sympathy because he is no longer the biggest villain on Wall Street.  That role falls to Bretton James (Josh Brolin), head of a giant energy conglomerate willing to drive his rivals to suicide, send his one-time partner Gekko to prison, buy up green energy companies only to shut them down, and plunge the US Treasury into bankruptcy.  James is a far wealthier man than Gekko—and even in the first movie Gekko was not the wealthiest man on the Street—but Gekko’s character possesses the charm it does precisely because he’s not the richest man around.  There’s just enough of the underdog in him to make us root for him (just a little bit), just as we root for swashbuckling Jack Sparrow instead of the British fleet.

Despite Gekko’s defining declaration that “greed is good,” the Wall Street movies remind us why greed, so monstrous and beguiling, is indeed one of the Deadly Seven.  Both films are self-conscious indictments of unbridled capitalism, but they were made in different eras and have starkly different endings.  Only the first film is a true tragedy, ending with the fall of its heroes, even of Bud Fox (Charlie Sheen) Gekko’s protégé who had tried to do the right thing, albeit too late.  Justice—and a federal indictment—is served, and greed is punished.

But 1987, when Wall Street came out, was a different time; capitalism did not seem as inevitable as it would in the years ahead.  Communism was crumbling but, perhaps, did not yet appear to be the obvious dead end it does today.  All that changed quickly.  In his excellent account of the Soviet Union’s last days, Lenin’s Tomb, David Remnick recounts a showing of the original Wall Street for Soviet university students; instead of being repulsed by the dangers of greed, the young “Marxists” spent the movie swooning over the luxury cars and fancy gizmos that Gekko and his cronies enjoyed.  The anecdote revealed to Remnick just how intellectually dead communism had become even before the Berlin Wall fell.

The new Wall Street, on the other hand, despite its indignation, ends not with strict justice—with lawyers and handcuffs—but with Gekko leveraging billions, sparing a few million for a green energy project, reconciling with his daughter, and attending his grandson’s birthday party.  A cynic might read such an upbeat ending as Stone abandoning the fight, casting in the towel at the realization that there is no alternative to greed, to endless cycles of bubbles and crashes.  Such an interpretation is made all the stronger by Gekko’s prophetic declaration that “green” is the next big bubble.  The last shots in the film are of soap bubbles rising into the Manhattan sky at Gekko’s grandson’s birthday party.  A few of the reviews I read complained of Stone going soft.

But I don’t think that communism, or one of its variants, was ever the real alternative to the limitless greed the first Wall Street deplored.  The good guys in that movie are all throwbacks to an older age, like Bud Fox’s father (Martin Sheen), the stubborn union head who follows his gut, or the old broker Lou Mannheim (Hal Holbrook), who advises Bud not to look for the quick buck but to concentrate on the “fundamentals” of a company.  There’s something a little nostalgic in the way the good characters hearken back to a time when businessmen cared about making an honest dime, a pattern repeated in Money Never Sleeps in the septuagenarian trader Louis Zabel (Frank Langella), whom Bretton James drives to suicide.  Stone’s real alternative to greed seems to be the values of an older, wiser generation.

One gets the impression from Stone’s new film that even though the characters fulminate about derivatives and financial regulations and sub-prime mortgages, the regulations and the system—whether it be communism or capitalism or split-the-difference socialism—isn’t what is most fundamental.  As the newly-powerful, newly-rich Gordon Gekko tells the film’s young hero Jake Moore (Shia LeBeouf) in one of the film’s most revealing lines:  “It’s not about the money.  It’s about winning the game between humans.”

And perhaps here Stone has hit on something profound.  Wall Street and its sequel are indeed indictments of certain financial systems and practices, but more than that they are about vice and virtue.  They’re about being human.  No system of laws, after all, is so perfect that it can’t be gutted in practice by bribes and corruption, in short, by human vice.

It’s no coincidence that Gekko refers to money as a “she.”  For by becoming the amoral monster that he is—betraying his daughter to get back in “the game”—he has fundamentally misunderstood what it means to be human.  The hope in the film’s ending, the step toward redemption that Gekko finally takes, comes as a result of him remembering what it really is to be human, as he contemplates the ultrasound of his unborn grandson amid computer screens of graphs and numbers.  A tug of humanity, the thought of his grandchild, brings him back to his daughter and forgiveness.

“Human beings—you gotta give ’em a break,” Gekko tells his daughter.

Not the words of a saint to be sure but not, I think, the stuff of deus ex machina happy endings, either.  It is the stuff of real—if tentative, if incomplete—redemption, for the first step in relearning to be human is, indeed, forgiveness.

Even, perhaps, for Gordon Gekko.

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