Wall Street’s gutter ethics

Peter C. Newman December 28 1987

Wall Street’s gutter ethics

Peter C. Newman December 28 1987

Wall Street’s gutter ethics


Peter C. Newman

Wall Street is less a place than a metaphor. As the world’s leading financial centre, the seven-block alley of skyscrapers on the seaward tip of Manhattan Island determines the price of money. But in recent years it has also determined America’s ethical standards—or rather, the lack of them.

In Wall Street, a flawed but powerful movie released this month, Oliver Stone, director of the Academy Awardwinning Platoon, attempts to define Wall Street’s gutter ethic that climaxed with the Oct. 19 fall from grace. He comes so close to succeeding that at times his film ventures dangerously close to being a documentary.

Stone’s portrait of moral decay within the upper reaches of U.S. capitalism suspends disbelief without ever becoming preachy, and it is this gritty quality that makes it so compelling.

The 125-minute film is a lightningpaced morality play in which an ambitious but weak young stockbroker named Bud Fox is ensnared by a Boesky-like mogul, Gordon Gekko, who had an ethical bypass at birth and “was on the phone 30 seconds after the Challenger blew up selling NASA-related stocks.” The youthful Fox courts the wily Gekko, is quickly seduced into providing illegal inside information, is betrayed, and in the end incriminates his corrupter.

The new Stone release concentrates on mental rather than physical violation, but is as effective as his classic Platoon. The dominant theme of that Vietnam film was that the first casualty of war is innocence; the motif here is that every dream has a price tag— and that most people are willing to pay it.

The two notions converge in Stone’s decision to film downtown New York as a battle zone, so that Wall Street’s spiritual tundra becomes less of a backdrop than the movie’s main theme.

People spend their days transfixed by the eerie glow of computer terminals, frantically dialling for dollars as they try to con their equally greedy customers into buying shares in some company that is “in play.” The shouting never stops. Like jumped-up cocaine addicts, the big shooters are in it as much for the game as the gain.

Using hand-held cameras and the best of current cinéma vérité techniques, Stone is able to capture not

just the action, but the killer instinct of the participants. “If you need a friend,” one stockbroker tells a complaining colleague, “get a dog.” Another dismisses a beautiful and reputedly sexy analyst at a competing firm with the cutting comment, “Having sex with her was like reading The Wall Street Journal."

Even nature turns malignant. The New York sunsets and sunrises have the same ominous quality as the day

changes in Apocalypse Now. They create a mood of foreboding that can break at any moment into a sharkfeeding frenzy.

Under Stone’s direction, the camera becomes a predator, probing the film’s characters for vulnerabilities of the soul and skin. The most devastating aspect of the screenplay, written by Stone and Stanley Weiser, is that insider trading is accurately portrayed not as a crime, but as a natural outcome of the value system in play here.

“Come on, who really gets hurt?” is the question. “It’s ridiculous to have laws that regulate the free market, while muggers waste old ladies in the street. We can buy our freedom. There is justice higher than the law.”

Although Wall Street has 79 speaking parts, at least three of the main characters play considerably below the potential of their roles. Hal Holbrook is ineffectual as a vaguely idealistic broker. Daryl Hannah tries hard to turn herself into a sort of Hertz bimbo (for rent if not for sale), but ends up portraying only a pouty indifference meant to reinforce her boyfriend’s contention that “money’s the sex of the ’80s.”

The worst casting is Charlie Sheen (Martin’s boy) as the corruptible stockbroker. At 22, he lacks the face and body language to portray pathos, and his upward mobility is about as interesting as an elevator ride.

Apart from Oliver Stone’s sensitivity as a director, what turns Wall Street into a fine film is the performance of Michael Douglas as Gordon Gekko. Exuding an irresistible field of force, he is a rat-fink poet with a quip for every occasion. “I bought my way in. Now all those schmucks are sucking my kneecaps,” he complains. “Love is a fiction invented by people to keep them from jumping out of windows.” “Lunch is for wimps.” Such bons mots aside, Gekko brings to life the twisted ethics of Wall Street. His creed is simple: “I create nothing. I own."

His best scene occurs during a successful takeover of Teldar Inc., a faltering New Hampshire wood products company, when he rises from his seat during a shareholders’ meeting to answer the incumbent management’s charges that he is solely motivated by greed. “The point is,” he insists, “greed is good. Greed is right. Greed works. Greed clarifies, cuts through and captures the essence of the evolutionary spirit. Greed, in all of its forms—greed for life, money, love, knowledge—has marked the upward surge of mankind. And greed, mark my words, will save not only Teldar, but that other malfunctioning corporation called the U.S.A.”

That tirade may serve as the quintessential explanation for the Wall Street crash. When men and women equate their net worth with their self worth—not just in a movie but in real life—the social contract is burst asunder and the system explodes.