Oliver Stone’s reputation as a wide-eyed provocateur of the left is mostly founded around one movie, the unfortunate JFK, and those who only see him through the prism of that one movie might expect Wall Street to be nothing less than a lacerating indictment of the entire capitalist system. The director’s target is more specific than that, however. His father was a stockbroker, so Stone isn’t about to trash the entire profession, but he does take aim at some of the more egregious excesses of the mid-eighties.
Keep in mind that this was before day trading and the days of CNBC and cable news channels with a full time stock ticker running across the bottom of the screen, so elements that seem familiar to us in 2007 were actually somewhat revelatory in 1987. Thus, Stone’s insider’s look at the world of corporate raiders and leveraged buyouts was pretty eye-opening at the time.
Charlie Sheen returns for a second go-around with Stone after Platoon and there are definite parallels between the two movies. Like Chris Taylor, Bud Fox is an innocent abroad, torn between two competing father figures. In this case, the warring factions are Gordon Gekko (Michael Douglas), a truly self-made master-of-the-universe, and Carl (Martin Sheen), a proudly working class airplane mechanic for a financially troubled airline.
Bud works on Wall Street in what is called the “retail” end of the financial markets, cold calling widows and pensioners to convince them to drop a few thousand in whatever dog of a stock the firm is trying to move that day. He looks up to Gekko, the Omega of Alpha males, and dreams of moving in those circles. Bud tries day after day to finagle a meeting with the arbitrage artist.
On Gekko’s birthday, Bud manages to get his foot in the door on the pretense of presenting Gekko with a gift. However, he completely fails to impress the man until, in desperation, he drops an item of inside information about his father’s airline. When the tip pays off for Gekko, he starts to take an interest in Bud’s career. The catch is that the way to Gordon Gekko’s heart is with information and he isn’t picky about Bud comes by it, as long as it makes him money. This sets on Bud on a treadmill that’s both financially rewarding and legally slippery. His first assignment is spying on Gekko’s chief rival (Terence Stamp) and helping Gekko sabotage the man’s efforts to buy a steel company.
Pretty soon, Bud is running in extremely fast company, living in a penthouse and sporting a decorous blonde girlfriend (Daryl Hannah). However, when he convinces Gekko to help save his father’s failing airline, he finds himself in a position of choosing which father figure he’s willing to betray.
Wall Street tells its story reasonably well without hitting any real false notes, but the real problem is that it sometimes feels like we’re getting the Cliff Notes version of the Bud Fox story, hitting the high notes but glossing over thing that would give the story more texture. This is one of those rare films that could actually stand to be considerably longer.
You can’t fault the acting, at least not in the center of the story. Known at the time for television roles and light fare like Romancing the Stone, Michael Douglas swings large at the role of Gekko and plants this one in the upper deck. He seems to effortlessly exude the amoral charm that makes it easy to understand how Bud Fox could be seduced. It’s also a testament to Charlie Sheen that he is only slightly overshadowed by Douglas here.
Casting Martin Sheen as Bud’s father was a masterstroke at the time and, in hindsight, remembering Charlie’s more recent and well-documented personal problems, their scenes have an even greater poignancy twenty years later.
Also notable is Hal Holbrook as the senior stock broker in Bud’s firm, the voice of caution against seeking the quick and easy buck. The veteran actor’s great presence almost compensates for the fact that the role never amounts to more than a Yoda figure in a three-piece suit.
Stone and others have gone on record that Daryl Hannah was uncomfortable in her role as Darien, the social climbing decorator and it’s clear that she’s out of her depth here. Sean Young is barely visible as Gekko’s wife due to most of her scenes being cut. Given that the excised content involved an affair with Bud, a subplot that I can’t see working under any circumstances, this is a plus.
For one thing, that would have just highlighted the similarities between this movie and, well, most of the movies that Tom Cruise made in that decade. Replace high finance with billiards, bartending, fighter planes or stock car racing and you’ll see what I mean. I don’t think that means that Wall Street is necessarily derivative but including the affair might have made it seem so.
It is to Wall Street’s credit that this film takes a reasonably even-handed look at the chicanery of guys like Gekko, focusing on their excesses without making the market itself seem like crime. Even a free-market capitalist like me has to admit that the corporate raiders of the eighties contributed very little of value to his country or its economy, and I’m just as aghast as Michael Douglas when real-life stock traders, apparently suffering from an irony deficiency, say that Gordon Gekko inspired them get into the business.
This was always one of my favorite movies – I've heard they are making a sequel, which is interesting given the current state of the markets.