Street of Shame

Wall Street, 1987 (dir: Oliver Stone)

A film that tries to lecture its audience rarely works. Oliver Stone’s Wall Street is one such film, wherein a young, inexperienced broker (Charlie Sheen) has his moral compass tested by a rapacious, multimillionaire tycoon, Gordon Gekko (Michael Douglass). But this is a film whose politics are more admirable than its artistry. And, as Baudelaire and Oscar Wilde knew, neither art nor the artist has a moral responsibility to liberal social causes. Yet the complacent tone and execution of Wall Street simply serve to reaffirm the agenda of the liberal audience. At the time of its release in the mid-Eighties, Wall Street was arguably at its most felonious. As Bernie Madoff was setting up his Ponzi scheme that would drain investors of billions, Gordon Gekko’s sentiment of “greed is good” resonated in American theatres – a perfectly apposite aphorism for a financially hedonistic time. In this regard, Wall Street’s audacity in throwing light on perhaps America’s darkest industry is certainly commendable; particularly given that so few American films had done so before. However, its aesthetics amount to little more than dreary dramatics and the film’s moralising becomes frustratingly muddled and, at times, insipidly naïve. This uninspired presentation is especially disappointing when compared with Stone’s previous, much more focused film, Platoon, and his later work, the rousingly contentious media satire, Natural Born Killers.

Wall Street is structured like a morality play. The first half is a debauched Ayn Rand fantasy that gives way to a more solemn second half that’s designed to make us to feel bad about the preliminary extravagance. This is very different from Scorsese’s unbridled exploration of decadence in The Wolf of Wall Street – a film that deliberately infuriates through its portrayal of avarice and misogyny in an attempt to expose the unscrupulous heart of the Wall Street system (assuming it has one). Wall Street, on the other hand, never dares to provoke. It is eye-rollingly righteous in a way in which Scorsese’s film refuses to be. And it’s to its detriment. It instead prefers to pander to the collective masochistic liberal dream.

The moralistic centre of Wall Street (a completely oxymoronic sentence if I wasn’t referring to the movie) is creditable but somewhat hypocritical, and occasionally ironic. Women in this world serve purely as status symbols: Daryl Hannah is the object of desire (if we discount money) and is given such oddly contradictory drives that she eventually fades away from the film, and Sean Young is Gekko’s lifeless trophy wife, intended for nothing but male eyes and salacious perusals. Stone and Stanley Weiser, the film’s co-writers, throw in quick-fire dialogue and crisp pacing to keep us entertained. And, for much of it, we are. However, it’s hard to take the film as seriously as the filmmakers intend us to. In the wake of the 2008 financial crash, the film’s message may seem more appropriate than ever, but the sensibility is often naively straightforward: a very black and white film for one shot in colour.

“The love of money is the root of all evil.” When a two-hour film can be entirely summarised by a pithy, centuries-old, Biblical quote, you may care to ask yourself, “What does Wall Street bring to the table?” The truth is: very little. So yes, it may be true that money never sleeps, but I’m not sure the same could be said of myself watching Wall Street.

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