Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Oliver Stone: Wall Street

Taking a break from traditional war zones, Oliver Stone decided to move from the jungles of El Salvador and Vietnam to the jungle of Wall Street. The major difference is that Stone isn't as serious here as he was with his previous movies Salvador and Platoon. There's something charmingly campy about Stone's tale of 80's excess and greed in Wall Street. Most of what makes it work is the performance of Michael Douglas – a star at the time not known for these kinds of roles – and Charlie Sheen, who once again plays the wide-eyed optimist who gradually becomes more and more jaded, just like his character Chris in Platoon. The most interesting thing, though, about Wall Street is that how it shows Stone as a filmmaker stretching his legs a little bit, and showing the ability to make a different kind of picture. It would have been easy for Stone to follow up his Oscar-winning Platoon with another message movie about the war, but instead the oft-angry Stone decided to make a statement about the ridiculous ethos of the 80's, and how people in skyscrapers buying and selling companies like they're nothing are just as "lost" as the people in platoons who wandered through the jungles of Vietnam. Wall Street isn't nearly as serious as Stone's previous two films, but there's an undercurrent of anger at the Me Generation running through the campiness of the story.

The story concerns Bud Fox (Sheen) who plays an eager stockbroker who is always looking to bag the big account. He has a tradition of pestering major player Gordon Gekko (Douglas) every day in hopes that Gecko will take five minutes out of his busy schedule to hear his pitches on some ideas for interesting investment opportunities. Fox rehearses his speech daily, and when the time comes to meet with Gecko he is slapped with the reality of the situation that his ideas are nothing new to a guy like Gekko. And so Bud must resort to giving inside information about an airline his Dad (played by Martin Sheen) works for; setting off a chain of events that leads to Bud becoming everything he hoped to be as works for Gordon.

The problem with Bud's plan is that he is too naïve to realize that Gordon is a man who has no need for someone like him, and even though Bud represents everything wrong with the 80's (an era of coveting and assimilation) you kind of feel sorry for him because his ambition gets the best of him, and he's just too stupid to realize that he's out of his league hanging out among Gekko's circle of friends. The plot of the film unfolds in a rather conventional manner, but that's kind of the charm of the film as Stone breezes through the plot so that he can focus on the characters. The aesthetics (this film is competently shot by Stone stalwart Robert Richardson) act as more of a supporting character, an appropriate backdrop showing what these characters value and covet.

Stone uses some interesting editing techniques here to show the maddening pace of the profession (an always-moving camera and breaking up the screen into quadrants during a scene where Bud begins spreading the word about his Dad's company) giving the film the appropriate amount of energy and sense of urgency that these character expend on a daily basis; and he again, much like he did in Platoon and would do in his follow up film Talk Radio, gets out of the way for the most part and lets his actors do their thing, and they are more than up to the task of matching the kind of energy Stone is going for. The aesthetic doesn't become the star, but rather, it enhances what his stars are doing and saying, and because of that the audience becomes more interested in what is unfolding on screen. Stone understood in his earlier films that you didn't have to sex-up scene after scene of people talking with unnecessary aesthetic touches (again, think of when characters talk in movies like JFK or Nixon) and he just leaves it all on the screen knowing that his actors can make the dialogue interesting. The supporting cast is strong here: John C. McGinley (a Stone favorite) is great as the smarmy, cocky Marvin, a co-worker of Bud's; Hal Holbrook is serviceable as the veteran stockbroker who has made a career (and has a corner office) by playing it safe with people's money, and warns Bud about some of his practices, showing that he's a dinosaur in the land of the Me Generation; Daryl Hannah is Darien Taylor, the sexy, materialistic blond who is in love with Bud for all the wrong reasons; Martin Sheen, Terrence Stamp, and James Spader round out the cast as important moral compasses that swirl around the film's two stars: Charlie Sheen and Michael Douglas.

Much like his character, Chris, in Platoon, Charlie Sheen plays Bud Fox with same kind of appropriate naiveté that shows a greenhorn who has no idea what he's getting himself into. Either this shows how good Sheen was at playing this character, or these were merely the limitations of Sheen's acting, which is lifeless to say the least. Stone saw how he could use Sheen's limitations, his stiffness, to his advantage with the characters of Chris and Bud Fox, and wanted to use Sheen from the onset as opposed to the studio's desire to cast Tom Cruise as Bud Fox. Sheen's "stiffness", as Stone called it, is perfect for the role as we follow Bud's maturation much like we did Chris' and we begin to see a boy grow up into a cynical player of the "game" who really has no identity because all he's ever done is ape the feelings and attitudes of those surrounding him. In Platoon we saw Sheen play Chris as that wide-eyed, rah rah type who was gung-ho for the war and couldn't wait to fight for his country; however, as he started sharing in experiences with the more experiences veterans he began to take on their personalities and their feelings on the war. So too does Bud Fox model himself after others: as a stockbroker he looks up to the aforementioned veteran of his office played Holbrook, and when he's ready to become a mover and shaker, a big player, he looks up to Gordon Gekko, and we begin to see Bud Fox become Gordon Gekko 2.0 as he really doesn't make any kind of name for himself; he merely assimilates everything about the greed culture, the Me Generation, that he sees in Gordon and reads in magazines. I think this is the most fascinating bit of commentary about Stone's film; a film that I don't think is trying to be anything more than what you see on the screen: an entertaining, almost Capra-esque fish-out-of-water movie (Stone likened it to Pilgrim's Progress), that is entertainment with an underlying message.

The real star of the film, obviously, is Michael Douglas as Gekko. It was a big deal at the time for Douglas to play such a heelish role as he had really only been a suave action star in films like Romancing the Stone and The Jewel of the Nile. The studio initially wanted Richard Gere or Warren Beatty to play Gekko, warning Stone that Douglass was more of a producer than an actor. But Stone saw something in Douglas and decided to cast him as the evil, greedy Gekko. Douglas researched the life of T. Boone Pickens to prepare for the role, and created a character that is one of the memorable of all of 1980's film. His famous speech in front of a group of share-holders where he says "greed is good" perhaps sealed the Oscar for him, and guaranteed him all kinds of roles for the future that definitely played against the type he was known for in the early 80's. Douglas plays the role with the kind of confidence and bravado needed for a role like this; he not only looks the part, but he has an aura about him that is absolutely right for Gekko. Douglas' nuances as Gekko are what make the role memorable: side glances to other characters that show he's one step ahead of Bud, and that Bud is falling right into his trap; a smirk that says a lot more than a simple wrinkle of the lips; and ferocity that shows that this man means business…perhaps a bit of the producer he was coming out in his performance. It's one of the performances of the decade, and like many people say when they look back upon performances with the hindsight of knowing who the studio initially wanted, one can easily say that it is hard to imagine anyone else playing Gekko.

Some detractors of the film claim that the film isn't serious enough. Jonthan Rosenbaum claimed that "[T]he sensibility of this movie is so adolescent that it's hard to take it as seriously as the filmmakers intend us to." I have to disagree with the esteemed Mr. Rosenbaum; you see, I don't think Stone intends for the film to be serious at all. Sure, the film has a message to it in the same way Frank Capra films had a message, but I don't think it's meant to be an indictment of the times in the same way something like Natural Born Killers would be. The film has an ease to it, and the tone doesn't strike me as super-serious in the same way the tone of something like Born on the Fourth of July or Platoon does, and I think the performances are just campy enough to make the film more of an example of how silly these Generation Me-ers were more than anything.

Revisiting the film recently I was struck by how entertained I was by the film. It's as good and entertaining a two hour film Stone has ever made. Sure, it's pretty benign, but I don't think Stone intended for this film to have the same kind of bite as his earlier films (or some of the films he would follow with this), and I think that had he taken this approach to some of his later films his fall might not have been so great. Wall Street shows a different kind of Oliver Stone, a filmmaker who doesn't always need to make a heavy-handed message film or be super-serious, but could make a Capra-esque film with a little more of an edge to it. Sure, the film follows a rather cliché plot structure and has an all-too-familiar story thread, but the performances – especially Douglas' – and the confident, Blakeian tone of innocence to experience make it one of the most entertaining films of Stone's career. Wall Street remains one of my favorite of Stone's films.


  1. I too quite liked Wall Street. The film has a conventional narrative, as you mentioned, but despite that (or perhaps because of that) it managed to be eminently watchable and downright engaging.

    Michael Douglas certainly remains the best aspect of the movie. His enacting of Gordon Gekko has become legendary even in the business world - and everything that's wrong with it. His line, "greed is good" attained pop culture status, so to speak.

    I especially like Douglas when he's doing dark & disturbing role, as in films like Game, Fatal Attraction, etc. But Wall Street remains his crowning achievement.

  2. I love this film also.

    I love Gekko's first proper appearance (not counting the brief glimpse we get early on) - a whirlwind as the camera roves around him aggressively as he never stops talking, making deals, and truly embodying the phrase, “time is money.” This is such a fantastic way to introduce Gekko as it perfectly conveys what makes him so alluring to someone like Bud: he is always in control, he is smart, and he knows exactly how to get what he wants.

    Douglas dominates the movie with his larger than life character. He gets most of the film’s best dialogue and delivers it with such conviction. There is a scene between Bud and Gekko in a limousine where he tells the younger man how the financial world works, how it operates and lays it all out, pushing Bud hard to go into business with him. It is one of the strongest scenes in the movie because you really believe what Gekko is saying and how Bud could be seduced by his words.

    Anyways, great film and I am eagerly anticipating the sequel. Hopefully it will be a return to form for Stone.

  3. Michael Douglas was so insanely perfect for that role. I don't know how Kirk Douglas managed to pass down his ability to be a consummate jackass on-screen through his chromosomes, but damn it did Michael inherit that trait in spades.

    The movie itself is, as you say, surprisingly light given the circumstances, though I'll be interested to see how outraged Stone is this time out. In '88, he was just frustrated at the myopia of the haves and how they were screwing over the have-nots. Now, they've destroyed the world economy and ruined millions more than anyone could imagine. Much as Stone's preaching can be tedious, I actually hope he breaks out the righteous indignation (besides, he hasn't done so in a while and he also hasn't made a solid film in about a decade, though I did like W.)

  4. Shubhajit:

    Thanks for stopping by! I agree with you about Douglas' darker roles...I also like when he played against that type, too, with films like WONDER BOYS, which I think is his best performance.

  5. J.D.:

    Ah yes, the limo scene. It's a crucial scene for Bud as he tries to figure out how far he wants to go to be like his idol Gekko. It's a great scene. And I too love the introduction of Gekko with its manic pacing and constantly moving camera. Great stuff. I'm hoping for good things from the sequel, too. We'll see in about a month!

  6. Jake:

    Thanks for stopping by and for leaving a comment! I agree with you about how Douglas was "insanely perfect" for the role. It always amuses me to go back and see who the studios initially wanted for these roles that would become so big that we recognize the film because of them. I too am hoping for an angrier Stone in the sequel...I think the modern economy doesn't call for the same tone he had in 1987, and I'm really hoping he stirs the pot with this new film because every film he's released since NATURAL BORN KILLERS (even though I quite liked W.) has been pretty paint-by-numbers and benign. I hope the sequel has the much needed bite to it to reinvigorate Stone's career.

    Thanks as always for stopping by.

  7. As much as I loved Michael Douglas in this, I got to give major props to Martin Sheen. Gordon Gekko is kind of this untouchable guy with an ego and an elitist appearance. . .but Martin Sheen just stares right through it and is a formidable opponent to Gekko. While Bud and others cower or revere, 'Dad' sees through the bullshit. Love it.

    My one gripe with the film is how dated it made itself with the pocket TVs and the brickphones. Minor gripe.

    As for against-type Michael Douglas roles. . .he was really fun in King of California.

    Great article and review. I may have to rewatch!

  8. I'm enjoying this series on one of my favorite filmmakers -- perhaps for me the most surprising of all the directors I like, since there's so many things about Stone that would prepare me not to like him.

    You delve into his aesthetic virtues (with Wall Street and in your previous posts) very well. To this I would add that Stone is extremely underrated with actors. For every actor cast for his iconic presence (like Douglas), there are always a handful deliberately cast against type: Berenger and Dafoe in Platoon, John Candy in JFK, Anthony Hopkins in Nixon. The list goes on. Stone is as good as Altman in bringing out surprises from his performers, uncovering new dimensions.

    The other thing I like about Stone is he's hyper-aware of his own image and often pushes against it. Accuse him of being a left-wing nutjob, and he paints relatively sympathetic portraits of Nixon and Bush. Charge him with misogyny, and he makes Heaven and Earth. Declare he has no sense of humor, and he does a funny cameo as himself in Ivan Reitman's Dave. I'm not saying these charges are inaccurate; just that, like all great artists, he frequently confronts them, and his art becomes better for it.

  9. Will:

    Thanks for the comment. I like what you say about the elder Sheen's performance. Great stuff.

  10. Craig:

    Thanks for the comment! I always appreciate it when you stop by. I'm glad you're enjoying the series so far...I definitely enjoy Stone's work, and I'm starting to get to the era of his (the 90's) that really resonates with me. I love what you have to say about how "hyper-aware" Stone is...when you mentioned that I immediately thought of Candy's performance in JFK, and then I saw that you put that down in your comment.

    Also, you're absolutely right about NIXON being the film that answered all of his critics who disliked his left-wing conspiracy theories in JFK. He actually succeeded in making me care about Dick Nixon. Incredible.

    The comparison to Altman is an interesting one, and I have to be honest I hadn't thought about it until now (just because their films are so aesthetically different), but you're of the things that's really struck me looking back at his early films is how much breadth he gives his ensemble cast to do their thing. I'll be thinking more about this Altman comparison as I take a look at his most ensemble heavy films: JFK, NIXON, and ANY GIVEN SUNDAY.

  11. I'm mixed on this film, though I do love JFK, PLATOON, BORN ON THE FOURTH OF JULY and NIXON among his work.

    I see you are penning some terrific reviews here.

  12. I'm mixed on this film, though I do love JFK, PLATOON, BORN ON THE FOURTH OF JULY and NIXON among his work.

    I see you are penning some terrific reviews here.

  13. I loved Michael Douglas, Martin Sheen I got to the major support. Gordon Gekko with a significant presence and an elitist like this guy is untouchable. . But it just stares right through Martin Sheen and Gekko is a formidable opponent .. While Bud and others cower or fear 'father', sees through the rubbish. Love it.