20th Century Fox, 2010
Directed by Oliver Stone
Starring Michael Douglas, Shia LaBeouf, Josh Brolin, Carey Mulligan
Film review by John Terrill
Anticipating the release of Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps, I was intrigued by a recent op-ed piece on CNN.com by Yaron Brook, president of the Ayn Rand Center for Individual Rights.
In the article, "Our Moral Code Is Out of Date," the author asks, "Who in our culture should we seek to emulate?"
“Ask someone on the street to name a moral hero; if he isn't at a loss, he'll likely name someone like Jesus Christ or Mother Teresa. Why? Because they're regarded as people of faith who shunned personal profit for the collective good. No one would dream of naming Galileo, Darwin, Thomas Edison or John D. Rockefeller.Yet we should. It is they, not the Mother Teresas of the world, who we should strive to be like and teach our kids the same.
If morality is judgment to discern the truth and courage to act on it and make something of and for your own life, then these individuals, in their capacity as great creators, are moral
There is something praiseworthy about those who create well, but is it true that “morality is about personal profit, not its renunciation,” as Brook suggests?
This question provides good fodder for important ethical discussions. But at a personal level it stoked my memory of Bud Fox and Gordon Gecko from the 1987 classic film, Wall Street. Remember the refrain, "Greed is good"? It was inspired by a similar, real-life commencement speech given by Ivan Boesky, a Wall Street arbitrageur who paid $100 million to the SEC to settle insider-trading charges.
Just as the first movie exposes investment banking excess and the self-indulgence of the ’80s, Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps does the same for the uber-greed of the past decade — especially the events leading up to the devastating recession of the past couple of years.
(The director, Oliver Stone, uses soap bubbles floating skyward twice in the movie to illustrate the fragility of our recent “irrational exuberance.”)
Greed Got Greedier
The movie starts in 2001 with Gordon Gecko (Michael Douglas) being released from prison after serving eight years for crimes committed during the first film. The action quickly shifts to 2008 and heats up alongside the supercharged, sub-prime mortgage frenzy and banking collapse.
As market forces swirl, Gecko, rather than acting as ruthless shark, ironically plays the role of calm cultural observer, issuing warnings that the bubble is about to burst — and burst big. Serving in the role of market sage, he decries, “While I was away, greed got greedier,” and “the mother of all evil is speculation.”
As Stone sets the external stage for the great meltdown, which includes the demise of Keller Zabel (mirroring the real-life investment banking giant, Lehman Brothers), the director weaves in a moving story around Gecko’s estranged relationship with his daughter, Winnie (Carey Mulligan).
Winnie blames her dad’s absence while in prison for her brother’s death, and consequently doesn’t want anything to do with him. But Gecko is intent on winning her back, expressing convincingly his desire to regain her trust out of the wreckage of his life. A personal connection to her fiancé, Jake Moore (Shia Labouf), ensues and provides just the open door for reentry, as well as a thickening, darker plotline.
The Bad and the Good
I saw this movie with a group of colleagues, most of whom for various reasons didn’t like it much. One didn’t care much for the creative license Stone took in reconstructing the events that led to our current crisis. Another was distracted by the fragmented and frenetic storyline that didn’t hold together well. All of us were disappointed with the ending, which seemed way too artificial and undermined some of the tension developed in the film.
But there were some things about this film that I enjoyed, namely the battle of good versus evil, life versus death, and unbridled greed versus generosity towards others. Bretton James (Josh Brolin) is a convincing antihero and predatory banker who will make you want to permanently watch your back. And Gecko is as slimy as it gets, mining new depths of darkness and deceit. In his review of the film, which is mostly negative, Joe Morgenstern of the Wall Street Journal had this to say about Douglas’ portrayal of the main character: He “sustains a sense of nasty fun as the former snake with the lizard name who — surprise, surprise — remains a snake, despite having shed several skins.”
Consider the Gecko
I gravitate toward films that move me and prompt personal change and reflection. Seeing evil portrayed on a grand scale is a helpful reminder that in our frailty, we are all vulnerable. But in this case I’m not sure I left with any major or new life lessons. The movie was too over-the-top to prompt the kind of deep, self-reflection that comes from experiencing the tensions and struggles of more nuanced characters. In my mind, greed still isn’t good. And contrary to what Brook suggests in his CNN.com piece, our most cherished moral exemplars aren’t necessarily those who generate the greatest profit.
Even with its flaws, though, I found the film entertaining and worth the time and money.” For some “nasty fun,” I encourage you to spend some time with Gecko and company.
John Terrill directs the Center for Integrity in Business in the School of Business & Economics at Seattle Pacific University.