We already knew that Oliver Stone, a stockbroker’s son, didn’t like Wall Street. He thinks of it as a place where people have no morals and will do anything for money. Most of them deserve to be in prison -- or so Stone suggested in a recent interview in the New York Times.
This isn’t, necessarily, because people on Wall Street have broken a law, or murdered anyone. They have violated the values in Stone’s moral universe. These codes are never drawn in shades of gray; Stone is a moral absolutist.
His latest film, “Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps,” a sequel to the 1987 original “Wall Street,” again stars Michael Douglas as Gordon Gekko, though now in a murkier role as a released felon and something of an elder statesman. The primary villain this time is played by Josh Brolin, who portrays the captain of a securities firm. Brolin is secretly shorting the stock of a competitor firm (think Bear Stearns). It isn’t clear that Brolin’s character has committed a crime: only the crime of greed, and of driving a competitor out of business.
The social malignancy is characteristic of the people in Stone’s Wall Street. They don’t plumb for value or raise capital for business or invest for the future -- they speculate. And speculation, the film posits, is “the mother of all evil.” They also do a lot of insider trading -- or such is the impression in this vaguely articulated film.
Full of Secrets
Everyone on Wall Street seems to have a secret, and the secret is dark. The one exception is the hero, an earnest trader played by Shia Labeouf. He is interested in clean energy and therefore he is good. Because he is good, he is handsome and young, while the villain is middle-aged and always seems to be sneering. In case the message still isn’t clear, Stone contrives to have the Brolin and Labeouf characters engage in a motorcycle race -- a test of virility, even of moral fiber. The young stud wins.
Stone is right that Wall Street is rife with greed, and in the aftermath of the financial meltdown, the Street is an easy target. What his vision lacks is nuance -- any appreciation of the breadth of people, and of their behavior and their ethics, even on Wall Street.
This is a problem generally when Hollywood tackles business. Oil companies, power plants and banks are bad. Journalists who investigate what the former are up to inevitably are good. When was the last time you saw a movie in which the hero ran a business, let alone a big corporation?
We expect Hollywood to churn out vapid and cliched films. Most people don’t go to the movies for intellectual stimulation. But Stone holds himself out as a moral arbiter. He makes movies about Latin America -- always, with his trademark absolutism, portraying the region as the victim of American business interests. He champions the likes of Hugo Chavez, a fellow absolutist as well as a strongman bully. He even, to judge by a recent interview, finds a soft spot in his heart for Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
Stone recently landed in the soup by making anti-Semitic remarks in an interview with the U.K.’s Sunday Times newspaper. Among other gems, he accused the Jewish “lobby” in America of dominating the media (a slander that is also, Stone-style, a stereotype,) and of overplaying the Holocaust. He later apologized. Reading that interview, I think his target wasn’t only American Jews but also, typically for Stone, America and American business.
“Hitler was a Frankenstein but there was also a Dr. Frankenstein. German industrialists, the Americans and the British. He had a lot of support,” Stone told the Times.
The definition of a moral absolutist is that they will do anything for a cause. Stone’s cause seems to be hatred of America and of capitalism. Alongside those alleged evils, everything else appears, to him, to be relative. Stone, in fact, is preparing a 10-hour documentary series for Showtime, “The Secret History of America,” that, the director says, will put both Hitler and Josef Stalin “in context.”
The same anti-Americanism and anti-business animus motivated “JFK,” Stone’s grossly inaccurate film about the John F. Kennedy assassination. It linked the killing to the “military-industrial complex,” and falsely implied that Lyndon Johnson was involved in a supposed cover-up. That film, by the way, grossed more than $200 million, quite a bonanza for the anti-industrialist Stone.
It is the same hatred of business that inspired “Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps,” though the rhetoric this time is rather tame. Douglas’s Gekko is even allowed a moment of relativism when he says, “We’re all mixed bags,” though the tone of the movie is darker than that comment implies.
As entertainment, the movie is limp; rather than run with the real fiasco of the mortgage meltdown, Stone invents a new plot, half involved with the subprime mess, half about nuclear fission, and all mixed in with a love story. Why not use the real-life material of the mortgage bubble? Stone responded in yet another interview with the New York Times that mainstream moviegoers wouldn’t be interested.
“People won’t watch a business movie,” he said. So in the end, Stone does care about commerce -- about selling tickets. Stone depicts Wall Street as a place without scruples, a place where people bend the truth to make a buck. Who would know better than Oliver Stone?
(Roger Lowenstein, author of “The End of Wall Street,” is a Bloomberg News columnist. The opinions expressed are his own.)
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