Unlike money, Judge Erich Asperschlager always sleeps.
Our reviews of Wall Street (Blu-Ray) (published February 2nd, 2008), Wall Street (Blu-ray) Signature Series (published November 19th, 2012), and Wall Street: Insider Trading Edition (published September 16th, 2010) are also available.
"Greed—for lack of a better word—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, for money, for love, knowledge—has marked the upward surge of mankind."—Gordon Gekko
I was born in 1977, so my first full decade on this earth was one of Reaganomics, yuppies, and corporate greed. Though the promise of easy money didn't reach quite as far as my elementary school playground, it echoed loud and clear down the canyons of Wall Street.
Fresh off the success of Platoon, Oscar-winning director Oliver Stone decided to make a movie about business, trading the actual jungle of Vietnam for the concrete one of New York City. Wall Street, now celebrating its 20th anniversary, may not be Stone's best film, but it's one of his favorites—and as a tribute to the life of his stockbroker father, it's also one of his most personal.
Though it's easy to look at the film as a blanket condemnation of an '80s culture that saw greed as "good," Wall Street is more nuanced than that. Even with a strong sin-and-redemption story arc, Oliver Stone wants the audience to understand these men who fight their "zero sum game" of financial winners and losers—especially the film's oddly sympathetic "villain," Gordon Gekko.
Typical of Stone, his commitment to getting the details right meant throwing himself into research, getting to know real brokers and spending time with traders on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange. As a result, Wall Street portrays a financial world so authentic it's still held up by insiders as the truest Hollywood representation of what they do every day.
Facts of the Case
Bud Fox (Charlie Sheen, Major League) is a lowly Wall Street account executive, making cold calls and dreaming of hitting it big. Through persistence and luck, he scores a rare meeting with corporate raider extraordinaire Gordon Gekko (Michael Douglas, The Game). Desperately trying to save a failing sales pitch, Fox gives Gekko confidential information about a recently settled lawsuit promising to benefit the airline that employs his mechanic father (Martin Sheen, The Departed). When the tip pays off, Gekko lets the young broker enter his inner circle, where Fox discovers that his mentor's fortune is built on insider trading. Seduced by easy money and an extravagant lifestyle that includes women like interior decorator Darien Taylor (Daryl Hannah, Roxanne), Bud falls deeper under Gekko's influence. Faced finally by a business deal that threatens to destroy his father's career, Bud must decide what success is worth.
Oliver Stone, loathe to rest on his laurels after winning an Oscar for Platoon, went straight to work on Wall Street. The setting is different, but this film is as much a war movie as its predecessor. The warriors of finance may wear different uniforms, but they speak in the same military terms, whether they're making a "killing" or "waging war" on a company. Stone set his film in a world of macho posturing and aggressive physicality, where "people use their tongues as weapons."
In preparation for this movie, Stone did everything he could to get the details right. He knew a good amount about the world of buying and selling stocks from growing up around his father's Wall Street office. He did a lot of research—talking and spending time with brokers from all areas of the business. When it came time to shoot, he filmed in an office building rather than a set; he made sure the props and computers were the same ones being used by the pros; and he hired ex-Salomon Brothers partner Kenneth Lipper as technical adviser. The final product is accurate, down to the frenzy of the stock exchange (a location they managed to secure for a brief 45-minute shoot with real traders playing the scene). Unfortunately, it means if you aren't already familiar with the rules and language of the business, you'll probably feel lost at times. I did.
Though the environments and authenticity are impressive, it's the talented cast who brings the world to life. Despite interest from box-office heavyweight Tom Cruise, Stone gave the part of Bud Fox to Charlie Sheen, a young actor he had just worked with on Platoon. To play his father, Carl, they brought in Charlie's actual father, Martin Sheen—a decision that adds to their scenes together. The supporting cast is no less impressive: John C. McGinley (with whom Stone also worked on Platoon), James Karen (Any Given Sunday), Hal Holbrook (All The President's Men), and Terence Stamp (Superman II) all turn in memorable performances. The film's weakest performance, unfortunately, is Daryl Hannah's portrayal of Bud's materialistic love interest, Darien. Stone is candid in interviews about regretting his decision to keep her in the role. While he's clear about his respect for her as an actor, he recognizes that she was unhappy playing a character she didn't like (especially in an atmosphere clouded by fellow actor Sean Young's insistence that she would have been a better choice for the part).
Though Stone's intent was for Bud to be the film's focus, it's the character of Gordon Gekko, played to perfection by Michael Douglas, who dominates the film (and whose face fills the cover of this DVD release). As the financial genius who'd "not only sell his mother to make a deal, he'd send her C.O.D.," he's the villain people love to hate, or in some cases, love (Stone was surprised by the positive response the character got—and people still come up to a puzzled Douglas, telling him Gekko was the reason they decided to work on Wall Street). The strength of the character comes from the fact that a lot of what he says makes sense. Even though Gekko represents the worst of the system, he also understands its realities. Listen to the famous "Greed is good" speech again; it's actually an attack on those he sees as the real villains: inept and overpaid corporate management who screw over their stockholders. In this post-Enron world, it's hard not to side with him on that. Despite what you might think, Stone's goal with this film was to defend capitalism, not condemn it. He recognizes a simple truth about economics: it's about calculation, not character.
Like Platoon, Wall Street is, at its core, about father-son relationships. Sheen's Fox, in fact, has three "fathers" in the film: Gordon Gekko, Carl Fox, and older co-worker Lou Mannheim (Hal Holbrook), who peppers Bud with aphorisms and warns him against so-called "sure things." Each man offers a different view of money: to Gekko, money is power, to Carl Fox it's "a big pain in the ass," and to Lou, it's something that "makes you do things you don't want to do." Together, the positive father figures (Carl and Lou) represent Stone's real father—an honest man who proved there's room in business for people who are out for more than themselves.
For all the care and attention to detail that went into this film, the script is where you'll either love Wall Street or hate it: characters speak in proverbs; they give lengthy (and frequent) monologues; they say things like "life comes down to a few moments—this is one of them"; they call each other "buddy," "pal," and "sporto." If you expect to hear things real people say, you might have a tough time with the film. If, however, you give yourself over to the rhythm and swagger of the script, it's full of over-the-top fun and real human insight. Oliver Stone isn't a director who takes what he does lightly. You might not agree with everything he has to say (or even how he says it), but you can be sure he knows exactly what he's doing.
Whether or not you like the script—which the director made sure his actors followed to the letter—there's no doubting its impact. Lines from the movie are still being quoted on trading floors up and down Wall Street: "lunch is for wimps"; "money never sleeps"; "churn 'em and burn 'em"; "if you need a friend, get a dog."
The bonus features kick off on the first disc with a feature-length commentary by Oliver Stone. One of the best things about DVDs is the ability for filmmakers to speak directly to the audience, providing background information and insight about their work. Stone's commentary is full of such info and insight. He talks about his father, casting, research, and the filmmaking process, switching between commenting on the film and giving lessons in philosophy and economic history. The only downside is that because he's someone who has thought it all through before, he has a tendency to repeat himself. If you're interested in what he has to say, though, it's worth it.
The legacy of Wall Street is examined on the set's second disc, which begins with an introduction by Oliver Stone, and includes 20 minutes of (pretty rough) deleted scenes with optional commentaries, and two featurettes that clock in at a little under an hour each. "Money Never Sleeps: The Making of Wall Street" is one of the most thorough "making-of" documentaries I've seen in a while, featuring extensive interviews with Stone and all the main actors, except for Daryl Hannah (whose absence is disappointing, though not surprising). If you listen to the commentary, there's a good amount of overlapping information, but since a lot of people skip commentaries anyway, it's hard to fault them for it.
The second featurette, "Greed is Good," examines the relationship between the characters in the film and their real-life counterparts, through interviews with the director, actors, and the men and women who actually work in the business. It's fascinating to hear them talk about how closely the film resembles what it is they do every day, and how, in many cases, their experience with Wall Street affected their choice of career. Most striking (and scary) are the number of interviewees who hold the wealthy Gordon Gekko up as an ideal, in some cases acting almost as apologists for his behavior.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
For some reason, films made in the '80s look more dated than those made in nearly any decade before or since. Maybe it's because the fashion and music have yet to catch a ride on the retro-chic merry-go-round, or maybe recent advances in technology make those old computers seem more ancient than they really are. Whatever it is, I find it difficult to immerse myself in movies from that era, which is too bad for a movie with as much to offer as Wall Street. Let's just say you won't find it hard to believe it's really 20 years old.
In his introduction, Oliver Stone says the film has never looked as good, and I have no reason to doubt him. The picture is clean, with no dirt or scratches as far as I could see. The general look of the film, however, is soft, as many '80s movies were. I'm sure they did what they could with what they had, but it's still a little disappointing. The audio presentation, too, leaves something to be desired. The sound design of the film—from the chaos of the trading floors to Stewart Copeland's electronic score—is impressive. The 5.1 mix is not. Most everything is sent to the front speakers, and the dialogue is occasionally muddy. My complaints about the audio and video shouldn't keep you from buying the DVD, though. Its minor flaws are glaring only because the film's overall quality is so high.
Wall Street is a stylish morality tale, set in a world where money is "liquid" and personal worth is judged by a few percentage points. Using the directorial capital he earned from the success of Platoon, Oliver Stone made a personal tribute to his father that also happens to be one of the most realistic business films ever made. Sure, some of the dialogue sounds silly, even a little preachy, but if you look past the dated fashion and technology, there's a story with depth, about choices and character. This 20th Anniversary Edition does the film justice, with substantial features and a transfer that looks better than it has (though not as good as it might).
Not guilty…um, except for that insider trading stuff.
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Scales of Justice
• Audio Commentary by Director Oliver Stone
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