Michael Douglas’s Gordon Gekko character from Oliver Stone’s 1987 film Wall Street embodied capitalism at its worst. Gekko was a corporate raider whose desire to generate wealth for its own sake eclipsed any sense of moral or legal accountability. However, Wall Street reportedly had the bizarre counter effect of actually inspiring people, who were turned on by the idea that greed is good, to become stockbrokers. If stockbrokers today really have modelled themselves on Gekko then is it any wonder that the resulting financial culture of unsustainable lending and speculation led to the 2008 market crash? With this in mind it makes perfect sense for Stone to resurrect the Gekko character in order to explore the events leading up to, and the outcomes of, the Global Financial Crisis.
Gekko for the most part is not the focus of the film but a strange spectre who lurks in the background of the narrative as part mythical legend, part fallen angel and part broken man. Since the first film he has spent eight years in prison, lost his family and lost his wealth. Nevertheless, he is still something of a hero to a new generation, including Jake Moore (Shia LaBeouf) an already highly successful proprietary trader who is living with Gekko’s estranged daughter Winnie (Carey Mulligan). Jake is attempting to make his fortune from investing in green energy, which is the next major boom market. Young, confident and hungry for success Jake is a gentler version of the type of characters from the original film and somewhat of an idealist, despite what he tells himself.
Stone’s politics are still worn proudly on his sleeve but he has mellowed somewhat as the expression of those politics is no longer so aggressive and his visual style has significantly calmed down from the Brechtian excesses of his 1990s films. After World Trade Centre and W, Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps is his third film made very closely after the events the films are examining. However, Stone and screenwriter Allan Loeb’s ability to make sense of what happened and incorporate those events into a compelling drama is very impressive. Meeting scenes set inside boardrooms could have been deathly dull but Stone communicates the significance of such meetings with his engaging directing style. The film is full of financial jargon that a layperson will not be able to fully understand but it is all contextualised in a way that gives you a sense of what is being spoken about. Like listening to an unfamiliar dialect or slang, you always have a sense of what it going on even if some finer details are lost.
Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps is probably as good a film about the GFC as can be expected. It also explores the fascinating position that renewable energy has in the market, the growing role of new media, the devastating impact of credit culture and, of course, the intrinsic immorality of relentlessly pursuing money over all other considerations. Stone also meditates on what people value most when they look back on their lives and issues of fatherhood (literal and symbolic, inspiring and brutal) also play a big role. The film does undercut itself badly with an unconvincing and contrived final scene and then credit sequence, but it is otherwise a compelling drama and a convincing vehicle to return Douglas to the screen as the infamous Gordon Gekko.