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Wall Street 2: we’re all Gordon Gekkos now

In Oliver Stone’s sequel, released in British cinemas today, it’s no longer only the pinstriped bankers who are sinfully greedy - it’s all of us.

Sean Collins
US correspondent

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Wicked characters can be very entertaining. It was true of Gordon Gekko in 1987’s Wall Street, and it is the case once again in the sequel, Wall Street 2: Money Never Sleeps. In his reprise as Gekko, Michael Douglas turns in a brilliant performance – now much grizzled and world-weary, but arguably even more devilish. It left me wondering if he could win two Oscars for the same role.

Oliver Stone’s latest film is engaging and has a lot going for it. In addition to some excellent acting performances (in bit parts, Eli Wallach and Susan Sarandon threaten to steal the show), there are sumptuous scenes of New York, including gorgeous panoramas of the Manhattan skyline. But like the stock market, the film has its highs and lows. With multiple plot lines, and sharp shifts in venue and mood, it is very messy and doesn’t really hang together.

Stone is known for making films that pack a political punch, such as JFK, Nixon and W. And so Wall Street 2 is also interesting for what it tells us about his (and others’) views of capitalism in the aftermath of the 2008 crash.

Indeed, the crash hands Stone a perfect rationale for picking up the Wall Street story again. He begins where the first film left off – with Gordon Gekko. In the opening scene, Gekko is being released from prison, and as a guard returns his personal belongings, the brick-sized mobile phone and pinkie ring remind us of the go-go years of the 1980s.

As you probably recall, Gekko is the iconic (and fictional) corporate raider of that decade. The original movie’s plot revolves around a young stockbroker, Bud Fox (Charlie Sheen), who worships Gekko. Fox gets rich under Gekko, but experiences a crisis of conscience when Gekko betrays him and destroys the union led by Fox’s father (played by Sheen’s real father, Martin) at Bluestar Airlines. Fox then gets revenge by wearing a wire and recording Gekko admitting his schemes, leading to Gekko’s incarceration.

The film is a fairly straightforward morality play. But it unintentionally glamorised what it sought to criticise. As Stone himself has noted, many Wall Streeters have said they were inspired to work in finance by the Gekko character. In particular, they took his ‘greed is good’ speech in the film to heart.

This time around Stone seems to be trying extra hard to make sure we do not come away with any sense that the Street is glamorous. But he is only partially successful in that. The displays of wealth are still eye-candy, and the wickedness is still engaging.

The central character in the sequel is Jake (played by Shia LaBeouf), a young, striving investment banker with a shade of green politics. His firm (like Bear Stearns) is the first to be brought down, leading his mentor to commit suicide. In turn, Jake seeks revenge on other bankers he blames for his firm’s downfall, mainly Bretton James (played by Josh Brolin). Jake is engaged to Gekko’s daughter, Winnie (Carey Mulligan), and he sidles up to the supposedly reformed Gekko in the hope of both receiving assistance in his revenge plot and reuniting father and daughter.

The two films differ in important and revealing ways. The first Wall Street was akin to a gangster film, with raiders like Gekko the hit men, the obvious bad guys. The main victims were workers, like the unionists at Bluestar, who lost their jobs. Its message echoed the brutally ruthless mafia line: it’s not personal, it’s business.

Stone could have taken a similar approach with the sequel – certainly, many more people have lost jobs this time around than in the aftermath of the financial crashes of the Eighties and Nineties – but he doesn’t. He remains unsubtle, but in a different way. He clearly identifies the good guys: Winnie, who runs a leftie blog, and Jake, who wants to save the world with clean energy (and make a lot of money in the process). And Stone has plenty of cardboard cut-out bankers who play the bad guys, like the one who motivates an investment to his colleagues on the grounds that it will bring ‘what we want – big bonuses!’

But there’s more going on. The key difference is that Wall Street 2 considers the main downside of finance and the money culture is its damaging effects on personal relationships and one’s own soul, rather than, as in the first film, the other financial players or the masses of workers. In the sequel, Gekko is sad and lonely, estranged from his daughter. Money threatens to tear apart the relationship between Jake and his fiancée Winnie. Personal dramas are at the forefront, and the details of the financial meltdown crash are not really examined – they are just a setting. In Wall Street 2, the mafia line has been reversed: it’s not about business, it’s personal.

Moreover, greed is no longer limited to Gekko and other financiers. In the sequel, everyone suffers from this sin. Gekko talks about the bartender who owns three homes, and people who take out home equity loans and then go to the mall. Jake’s mother is a real estate agent and over-leveraged property developer, and Jake considers her just as guilty as the financiers. Of course, this ‘everyone is to blame’ argument is bogus: it lets the true engineers of the crisis – the business and political elite – off the hook.

In Wall Street 2, capitalism or Wall Street in particular are not problematic per se. Indeed, not all Wall Streeters are bad: Jake’s mentor Lou (played by Frank Langella) is portrayed as an honest, old-school type. At worst, the economic structures provide an outlet for the expression of personal dysfunction.

Gekko cannot escape the race, because it is in his nature. Now out of prison, he appears to be a rehabilitated character. In a speech to promote his about-turn book, Greed is Good?, he says the country is out of whack because of its overreliance on finance, and that a meltdown is sure to come. (One of the best lines in the film is when he tells an eager audience of college students: ‘You’re all pretty much fucked.’) However, we eventually learn that Gekko’s prediction of the meltdown is not a sign that he has found religion, but an enticement for him to get back in and profit from it. Like an alcoholic, he cannot resist: ‘It’s not about the money, it’s about the game’, he says.

Wall Street 2’s emphasis on fallen nature might appear to be a more ‘human’ story, but it actually denigrates people. Not only does this outlook spread the blame for the crisis to working-class folks, but it also assumes our natures are essentially wicked and easily corruptible. This explains why – somewhat surprisingly – the film ultimately does not stir up outrage. Because the fault apparently lies in immutable human nature, there is little that can be done about it. Stone ends the film with a plea from Gekko to his daughter for understanding, because ‘we’re all mixed bags’. He reaches a relativist conclusion that we should accept that some of us will succumb to temptation, and we should look charitably upon those who do.

Wall Street 2 echoes many of today’s prejudices and misunderstandings about the crisis, and this, in fact, hurts the film as drama. The first film was very timely. The Eighties saw the beginning of the financial bubble, when financiers were celebrated, but Stone came along and challenged this. His film was released in December 1987, only two months after the Black Monday stock market crash, and it became a touchstone for an emerging backlash amongst certain sections of society.

In contrast, the sequel comes at a time when nearly everyone – from academics to the proverbial man on the street – already blames greed for the downturn. Stone’s second take is not a challenge to the status quo, but simply a re-confirmation of it, two years after the market crash. On top of this, his desire to dwell on personal lives in the sequel noticeably slows down the pace of the film compared to the first. The two green goodies, Winnie and Jake, are essentially dull as ditchwater.

Wall Street 2 is at its most energising when it evokes the real dread and panic that emerged when the markets started a freefall in 2008. I wouldn’t expect any drama – especially one made by Stone, whose historical films are notorious for their inaccuracies – to come close to explaining what caused that meltdown and why it struck such fear in the hearts of the establishment. But I can do without Wall Street 2’s message about how we’re all greedy and to blame for the crisis: I’ve already heard more than enough of that from politicians and intellectuals over the past two years.

Sean Collins is a writer based in New York. Visit his blog, The American Situation, here.

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