July 24

Filmlab: Best finance movies of all time – 3. Wall Street

Movies about finance don’t come any more iconic than Wall Street. Part celebratory, part condemnatory, Oliver Stone’s incursion into the Reaganomic nightmare caught the boom-bust mood of the 1980s with such finger-on-the-pulse precision that its US release virtually coincided with the 1987 stockmarket crash. Coming out less than two months after Black Monday, the timing confirmed Stone – himself the son of a Wall Street trader – as one of America’s savviest filmmakers, if not exactly its subtlest (that father-son story around which Wall Street’s juicier tale of insider trading, financial revenge and corporate combat revolved seemed laughably heavy handed, even then).

Nevertheless, in Gordon Gekko, the lunch-skipping corporate raider whose ethical bypass enabled him to wreck companies simply because they were “wreckable”, there’s no denying Stone created a brilliantly loathsome and seminal screen villain. As played by an Oscar-winning Michael Douglas, his “greed is good” philosophising and Sun Tzu-referencing ruthlessness served as both an indictment and a reflection of the times. Indeed, his pop-culture penetration was so total that he has since been invoked with and without irony as a beacon for capitalism, with Stone himself rehabilitating him somewhat for his belated (and mostly terrible) financial crisis-era sequel Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps.

Aside from Gekko, though, what remains great about the original Wall Street is the way Stone (coming straight off Platoon) embeds us, ‘Nam-style, in the financial jungle for a take-no-prisoners account of corporate warfare. Kicking off with majestic shots of Manhattan’s financial district, the Twin Towers framed ominously against a blood-red dawn sky, the film drops us into the brutality of the trenches with Charlie Sheen’s aspiring Wall Street player Bud Fox hunkering down for a day’s trading at his brokerage firm. As Bud cold-calls clients, pumps junk bonds, and pitches opportunities in the international debt market to disinterested dentists with money to burn, Stone’s camera roves around the firm’s office, capturing snatches of lingo-strewn conversations about DK trades, bull markets and quarter-point anomalies while homing in on the deranged-looking hand signals the brokers have developed to communicate info amid the din of the surrounding chaos. This is a financial battleground, make no mistake, the crumpled trading slips of a rough-and-tumble day in a global economic warzone littering the floor like spent shell casings in the aftermath of a firefight.

In this world, Gekko is less mentor to Bud than he is drill sergeant, someone who understands the value of “guys who are poor, smart and hungry” over Ivy League schmucks who’ve grown up around money so don’t know how to fight for it. In Bud he sees the kind of footsoldier that can be broken down and indoctrinated to fight dirty for a specious cause, allowing him to reap the profits while distancing himself from any illegality, courtesy of Bud’s eager-to-please willingness to be schooled in the art of guerilla warfare as much as The Art of War. Stone’s bête noire Richard Nixon even gets an early shout-out as the instigator of this chaos, blamed for all the cheap money sloshing around after taking the US off the gold standard in 1971 (just as he was secretly escalating the war in Vietnam with incursions into Laos and Cambodia).

Stone’s ability to make these connections is what gives Wall Street its continued kick, far more than the zeitgeist-defining dialogue – “Lunch is for wimps”, “Greed is good” – that quickly became bumper-sticker mantras for every jerk with a set of braces and a tub of Brylcreem; and far more too than the idealistic ending in which everyone is held to account for their actions, something that, in light of recent economic history, dates the film more conspicuously than all the brick-sized mobile phones and hideous interior decorating on display ever could. No, at its most savage and insightful, Wall Street reminds us that there really is no fundamental difference between the markets and the military – it’s all about making a killing.

Alistair Harkness, Film Critic, The Scotsman, 24 July 2014