Wall Street (United States, 1987)

July 16, 2009
A movie review by James Berardinelli
Wall Street Poster

One phrase - perhaps the best-known one from any 1987 release - encapsulates a critical component of '80s culture that once again crept to the fore in the late-'00s. I am, of course, referring to Gorden Gekko's "Greed… is good." A vice transformed into a virtue. That's where we were during the 1980s and that's where we find ourselves again. Wall Street, in large part due to the timing of its release, became more than just a movie. It became a declaration of the moral bankruptcy infiltrating elements of society, and Gekko's words were an ode to that philosophy.

Wall Street is more the story of Bud Fox (Charlie Sheen), a hungry up-and-comer, than it is of Gekko (Michael Douglas), a wily veteran. Gekko is where Bud would like to be, but the road ahead is long and arduous and he is looking for a short-cut. Two older men advise against that - his father, Carl (Martin Sheen), a union leader; and Lou Mannheim (Hal Holbrook), a long-time broker who lives by a ruthless code of ethics. But when Bud comes into some insider information gleaned through a conversation with his father and passes it on to Gekko, he finds doors opening. Suddenly, he's in the fast lane with the possibility of real wealth and power dangled in front of him if he can stiffen his resolve enough to do what must be done. Darien Taylor (Daryl Hannah), an interior designer he meets at Gekko's house, finds Bud's drive and confidence to be intoxicating, although it's clear she's more enamored with his position than his person. He has everything he wants except the respect of his father, who sees through Gekko's charismatic façade and recognizes that Bud has made a bargain with Lucifer.

Strictly from a plot perspective, there's nothing momentous about Wall Street. It mingles two time-honored stories: Man's fall from grace in the Garden of Eden and the chance at redemption that was never offered to Adam. In this scenario, Gekko is the serpent and Bud the eager innocent who takes a bite of the fruit from the Tree. Paradise, however, proves to be less pleasing when achieved than it appears from a distance. The movie's final third chronicles Bud's acknowledgment of his sins and shows how he strives to make amends. Wall Street ends by providing closure to Bud's story but offers no such resolution where Gekko is concerned.

Wall Street's most remarkable accomplishment was to achieve theatrical distribution at the perfect time. Stone wrote the screenplay in 1986 and filming took place in late 1986 and early 1987. All this occurred in the midst of a massive run-up of the stock market - the kind of frenzy that had china shop owners shuttering their doors and the city leaders of Pamplona barring the gates. By the time Black Monday arrived on October 19, Wall Street was already in the can - signed, sealed, and waiting for a December delivery. The Dow Jones crash alerted even casual stock watchers to the kinds of abuses that represent the core of Wall Street. And, even though the market had recovered by the time Oliver Stone's "exposé" reached theaters on December 11, the scars were still evident.

Gekko, as portrayed by Michael Douglas in the defining role of his career, is an amazing antagonist - more scary in some ways than Darth Vader. He is the picture of amorality, an individual who acquires wealth not because he needs it but because that's how he keeps score. For Gekko, everything is a game and he is driven to win at all costs. His charisma shields a deep-rooted rot. He is a general who gives no quarter and makes no concessions. He liberally quotes Sun Tzu, having made The Art of War the mantra by which he navigates life and the financial markets. Douglas is brilliant - he utters Gekko's pronouncements with absolute conviction. It's no surprise that Stone's 23-years-later sequel to Wall Street, Money Never Sleeps, would not have been made without an agreement by Douglas to reprise the part. Douglas won the Best Actor Oscar - the deserved victor in a strong field (the other contenders were William Hurt, Robin Williams, Jack Nicholson, and Marcello Mastroianni).

Charlie Sheen, working opposite his father, is often overlooked because many of his scenes occur in Douglas' shadow, but this is really Bud's story. Although Douglas won the Leading Actor award, Gekko was in many ways a supporting character. Wall Street follows Bud's arc, from his relentless pursuit of advancement to his horrified, belated recognition of what he has become. Sheen performs admirably, although he is not as impressive as in his previous collaboration with Stone, the Best Picture winner, Platoon. One scene in particular - Bud trying and failing to hold back the tears as he is led from his workplace in handcuffs - strikes a forceful note. It says more about Bud's character than anything else in Wall Street's 126 minutes.

The supporting cast - at least on the male side - is populated by accomplished actors doing solid work. These include Martin Sheen, making the first of several appearances opposite his son; versatile character actor John C. McGinley as Bud's avaricious co-worker; Terence Stamp as Gekko's principled rival; and Hal Holbrook. The two substantive female roles are flat, in part because of scripting weaknesses and in part because neither actress does anything to distinguish herself. Daryl Hannah is Bud's girlfriend and Sean Young is Gekko's wife.

Despite being a brilliant capsule of a specific time and place, Wall Street has gained new relevance 20 years after its release with the recognition that "reforms" in the industry have done little to curb the abuses detailed in this movie. Has there been a more Gekko-like figure than Bernie Madoff? Is there not as much anger directed at Wall Street as in 1987? And doesn't Gekko's pronouncement that "greed… is good" echo once again through the streets of lower Manhattan? The mechanics of stock trading depicted in Wall Street are outdated; technology has transformed the culture of clunky terminals to one of high powered PCs and instant communication. But the essence of what goes on is the same and the frantic nature of trading has lost none of its chaotic fascination. For that reason, Wall Street feels far less "old" and "dated" than many of its cinematic contemporaries (think WarGames, for example). Seen decades beyond 1987, Wall Street has shed some of its immediacy and viewers may not recognize Stone's uncanny prescience regarding where the market was heading but, because Wall Street continues to baste in the same corrupt culture that spawned real Gordon Gekkos, the film has lost none of its attraction.

Wall Street (United States, 1987)

Run Time: 2:06
U.S. Release Date: 1987-12-11
MPAA Rating: "R" (Profanity, Nudity)
Genre: DRAMA
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1