Oliver Stone: Wall Street (1987) - Can't Stop the Movies
Can't Stop the Movies
15Mar/130

Oliver Stone: Wall Street (1987)

Oliver Stone re-teams with Charlie Sheen to tell a different kind of coming-of-age story.  They've traded the trees and brush of Vietnam for the concrete jungle of America. Bud Fox (Sheen) has been looking for a way to get into the corporate trading circle of the overpowering Gordon Gekko (Michael Douglas).  Finally given the opportunity, is he willing to get a little dirty to reach his goal?  It is the '80s.

Metaphors!Kyle Commentary Banner“Who am I?” whispers Charlie Sheen into the night from his balcony overlooking downtown Manhattan, in what is easily the best scene of the 80s (read with irony, but not completely—we'll talk about this more later). Allow me to answer that question for you Charles: you're a pretty bad actor whose inept performance is somehow made better by the degree to which Michael Douglas' opposing role utterly dwarfs you. I love Wall Street. I have always loved it. I loved it since the first time I saw it as a kid and couldn't stop being impressed with how commanding and convincing Gordon Gekko manages to be while wearing suspenders.

The time period in which it was made has such a distinct, inextricable stamp on the movie, but despite being—and this is the academic term—“super 80s,” Wall Street hasn't become dated in a bad way. Oliver Stone is so single-mindedly devoted to the movie's portrayal of the bloated, misogynistic, self-important society it depicts that even the melodramatic and outrageous moments work. At one point after the main character has “made it” by turning to insider trading and information theft, while trying to get inside information from a college lawyer friend he actually, literally says, “come on, everybody's doing it.” This may have been less of a cliché in 1987, but what works about the scene is that Sheen's character is actually saying that. There's not a hint of irony or self-awareness—he's just a pathetic caricature.

In fact, one of the most weirdly effective things about the movie is how the Sheen character's growing clout and confidence is so unconvincing. That he is in way over his head is almost always clear to us and painfully unclear to him, and this works well to undercut the shallow glamour of the Reagan 80s.

Likewise, the film's style, which is dated but not unsuccessful, fits with the characters' ridiculous sense of invincibility. Much of the movie is artifice—from the over-the-top soundtrack to the to the too-obviously-scripted one-liners (and why is Fox and Gekko's final meeting in the middle of a huge empty park in the rain?)—and some of the wonderful, probably somewhat unintended effect of all of this is that we see all the characters as actors in a production. They are creating the world they live in at their own whims, and with as relevant as all this still is today, it's refreshing to see an observation of it in which form so readily follows function.

Charlie Sheen gives us duck lips AndrewCommentaryBannerI agree with most of what you wrote though I feel very differently about it.  The key is that you point this out as an ironic exercise there at the beginning.  Removing the ironic distance  the scene with Sheen looking off into the distance asking "Who am I?" is one of the worst I've seen.  It's so bad that I almost thought that Stone kept Charlie Sheen around as a tool of schadenfreude so that audiences could take pleasure in seeing what's coming far before he does.

As a total rebuke of the '80s corporate mentality that would work if not for two moments pivotal to the film.  The first has to do with the fact that two Sheens are acting across from each other.  Martin Sheen is the backbone of labor, Charlie the peon of the corporate empire, and the potential meta-commentary reaches critical mass in how measured and awesome Martin's performance is compared to the same blunt and confused emoting from Charlie.  But in the end, it's still Charlie's fact clouding and sneaky utilization of the system that wins the day.  A side-effect of this is some irony I really did like:  an attempt at injecting empathy into this kind of capitalist system still involves executives trading away lives for little.

This is also where I think you're attempt at reading Charlie's performance as Stone trying for a bit of meta-commentary falls apart.  He still manages to win in the end.  No matter what, he's the winner and still a smart and successful kid.  There's no punishment we see outside the tossed-aside threat of him going to jail.  Stone spends the entire film building to this moral judgement on '80s corporatism and then says, "Ok, it's horrible, but if it's horrible in this way it can work."  That's why I can't quite buy that Sheen's performance is part of some master plan.  The film runs on for too long and Sheen (who could have easily been replaced by the also starring James Spader to much better effect) goes off into the sunset in a way.

I also agree with you that the style isn't dated, but effective for what the film stumbles toward.  The best parts involved the young capitalist shill getting isolated from everything "genuine" (read: wannabe cutthroats) and into an increasingly isolated office and apartment.  Beyond that, Gecko is still the alternative hero, standing triumphant in the sunrise and willing to face up against the betrayer in the dreariest of circumstances.  The movie is a philosophical bent of what I thought Stone is instead of a visual, running headlong into an idea without figuring out how to develop it in images.  Stone tried, but the results make me wonder if he bought more into the "super '80s" than he thought.'merica

So, where's the controversy?

Tiny Kyle CommentaryA film like this that illustrated how the financial system worked (and could be so easily manipulated) wasn't necessarily brand new at the time, but there weren't many others that spelled things out quite like this. That's one of the reasons it works for me that Stone buys into this manipulation of the system for a more standard plot resolution at the end. He weakens his attack by putting the tools of corporate raiders like Gekko to the service of the plot, but even then he's still pointing out in a strikingly clear way how easy it is to control so much from a single office.

Tiny Andrew CommentaryDecent points but you kind of avoided the question of controversy.  The film is so on the nose about the soul crushing power of pure strain capitalism that it becomes a bit toothless by the end.  There’s are also some fun directorial flourishes (I love the pile of papers and monitors that overwhelm the grunts on the floor) but nothing that incites the same kind of emotional claustrophobia as Platoon.  I also don’t agree that no film has spelled things out like this before, we can look to some films from our site’s own Wilder analysis to see even more ruthless and cynical portrayals of Gecko’s brand of corporate control.Hit the floor

 How did Stone capture the zeitgeist this time?

Tiny Kyle CommentaryWhile the criticisms in Wall Street are more observations accompanied by some heavy-handed moral judgements, Stone depicting the financial system as nothing more than a game for a handful of powerful old white men fits neatly into the public outrage that has built steadily since the film was released. The movie itself doesn't ever hit the level of anger that the issue now inspires, but that's fitting considering that as a society we've had over 20 years to sit on it. The best thing about Wall Street as an artifact of its time may be the fact that even as the movie shows us precisely how Gekko, Fox, and company are manipulating the market to their own ends, there is no surprise involved. Morally reprehensible or not, Stone—probably rightly—didn't seem to expect anyone to be shocked by what was going on

Tiny Andrew CommentaryThis goes along with what you said about the film being an artifact of the ‘80s but not feeling dated.  Heck, there’s a scene with a robot, an item that almost instantly dates a film in a painful way, but fits in with the vacuous materialists who like their useless pretty things.

 

Big cigar

 That may be interesting, but is it any good?

Tiny Kyle CommentaryCharlie Sheen is becoming the George Lucas of the Oliver Stone project. Let's make a pact to just never mention him.

Aside from that—and the hilarious Charlie-Sheen-doesn't-know-who-he-is-on-a-skyscraper scene that encapsulates Oliver Stone obliviously trying to render 80s disillusionment on screen—I think it works great as an artifact of its time. In preserving and portraying the “masters of the universe” attitude at its height, I can't find too many faults with it, even while the story necessitates a third act that doesn't fit with the rest and more involvement from Sheen the Younger than it can withstand.

Tiny Andrew CommentaryIt’ll be pretty easy to have a “See no Sheen – speak no Sheen” rule since this is the last time we’ll see him in a Stone movie.

I’m not nearly as smitten with the film as you are.  Sheen’s performance doesn’t even work as a commentary within a commentary given the way that Stone works his way through a lackluster plot and tame conclusion.  Douglas is really entertaining, and Spader is one of my favorite actors, but this one is a big miss for me.

Next week: Talk Radio!

Stone with text

Posted by Andrew

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