As any frustrated teacher of the great books knows, movies have a direct ability to capture students’ attention and give words to their unspoken fears or longings. When I was teaching in the early 2000’s, around the time of the internet bubble, the hit was Office Space. Most of my dutiful
When I was a student in the late 1980’s, the hit was Wall Street, the sequel to which director Oliver Stone has just released as Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps. One of the great charms of the original Wall Street was that it managed to create a truly winning villain. I recall college classmates dressing like Gordon Gekko, talking like Gordon Gekko, and even reciting his famous “Greed is good” speech. Sure, everyone knew that what Gekko did was wrong, but he did it so masterfully. The Gekko who boldly proclaimed that “Greed is good” was up against sentimental college professors who were still talking airily about the inner truth of Marx while the Berlin Wall fell and their own 403(b)’s fattened in the bull market. It was no contest.
Fast forward twenty-three years, I can’t imagine a college student today dressing, acting, or speaking like the Gekko of Money Never Sleeps. The financial crisis of 2008-2009 was dramatic. Destructive, but dramatic. Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps attempts to cinematize this real drama. But it’s boring.
Why? A film must always depict history through characters, and the characters of Money Never Sleeps are wimps. They stand for nothing. The young protagonist (Shia LeBouef) can’t decide if he wants money or revenge or clean energy or a family. His would-be mentor Gordon Gekko (Michael Douglas) waffles between getting rich again and becoming a grand-dad. The other Wall-Streeters (or Treasury officials—they blend together) are cynical, or sentimental, or just bizarre.
“So, that’s life,” director Oliver Stone appears to be saying. And no one’s larger than life. Moral pointlessness is “systemic,” the film keeps saying. That’s what leads to bubbles and crashes. We’re the problem, with our home equity loans or our leverage. Stone gives even the sustainability Left a poke by having Gekko predict at the end that “clean energy” is the next bubble. His liberal daughter (Carey Mulligan) and LeBouef seem fine with that, as long as he makes them another hundred marygolds.
Here the contrast between Wall Street now and Wall Street then can teach us (and perhaps our students) something about the crisis itself and our possible responses to it. For all his malevolence, the original Gekko appeals to viewers generally and cocky young men in particular because of his mastery. He is one of the “masters of the universe.” He is no moral paragon, to be sure. But he is no mere trader, a “friend of the trend.” He raids companies and cuts jobs. But he makes something of the pieces that is more valuable than the whole. His “Greed is good” speech is base, but it projects an ideal of progress from this low foundation.
That’s why, for all his baseness, the original Gekko can inspire something like admiration or even embody a sort of nobility. His undoing has something tragic to it. And his undoer shares in this nobility. Bud Fox (Charlie Sheen, his protégé-turned-accuser) tells the truth. Towards the end of the film, his dad (Martin Sheen) tries to comfort him and say it’ll be alright. But Fox knows the deal: he did wrong, he fessed up, and he’s going to jail. It’s not grand heroism. Fox slew a Gekko, not a dragon. But he does the right thing and takes his lumps like a man.
In this way, the characters of the original Wall Street point the way towards a response to our situation that the characters of Money Never Sleeps have forgotten. Mastery can certainly be abused. But it implies (even demands) responsibility, and responsibility doesn’t allow you to be a wimp who blames “the system.” Integrity is not the sole virtue. But it does demand that you stand for something, that you believe that your words and deeds matter, even if you suffer as a result.
The characters of Money Never Sleeps repeatedly tell us that bubbles and busts are inevitable. No doubt. People recognized this before 2008. The question is what to do about it. Stone’s characters today seem to shrug and say, “Dunno.” (They certainly don’t endorse government activism: government too—whether American or Chinese—is part of “the system.”) Stone’s characters from 20 years ago knew better. You don’t have to be a hero or a god. But being a man and doing your best to stick to some basic virtues do make a difference. In film as in life—even in the classroom—character matters.