(1987) dir. Oliver Stone
I was trying to remember the last time I’d watched an Oliver Stone film and I’ve been coming up empty. Since such an event pre-dates this Film Diary, that puts it back over 10 years ago, which makes me think that most likely it was his U Turn (1997), which I think I did go see in the theater. And given to this ponderance, I came up with thinking “when was the last time an Oliver Stone film mattered?”
Well, back in the day, Oliver Stone had his crazy schtick tapped into the American cultural psyche. Dating back to his days as purely a screenwriter, Stone first hit paydirt with the screenplay for Midnight Express (1978) and Scarface (1983). This gave way to his greatest commercial success and cultural relevance with his 1986 Vietnam war film Platoon (1986), for which he won Oscars for Best Director and Best Picture. Which he then followed up with Wall Street (1987).
He’d go on with his very personal selection of subject material to stay high in the cultural eye over the late 1980’s through the 1990’s with films like Born on the Fourth of July (1989), The Doors (1991), and JFK (1991), showing that his taste in subject matter, while certainly slanted, found grounding with the public. And he also managed to make what I recalled thinking was a pretty hot mess of a film in Natural Born Killers (1994) from a script by the then suddenly red hot Quentin Tarantino (who completely disassociated himself from Stone’s film).
And while Stone has continued to turn his camera’s gaze to the White House, with a film about Nixon (1995) and one about George W. Bush, and even made a film so unambiguously titled as World Trade Center (2006), his films have seemed more like oddities than powerfully relevant stuff. And when I’d seen that this summer he was tapping back into himself, that he was making a sequel to the 1987 film Wall Street, I found myself thinking how desperately grabbing at straws he must be now to find relevance for his work.
I don’t know that I’ve ever quite given Stone as much credit as he’s due. I recall in the 1980’s that I’d been very averse to Platoon without ever having seen it. I was just getting into film and War films were pretty low on my sphere of interest. But I do recall finally seeing the film and quite begrudgingly realizing that it was very effecting (though I don’t know that I’ve seen it again since.)
But I never did see Wall Street. Like the war film, a film about day traders, money markets, greed, and all things very 1980’s about it, just didn’t interest me at all. And as the years went by and the film remained a cultural touchstone, I still had it out there as one of the films from the period that I never bothered having seen. But then, what with this sequel due out, it seemed like as good a time as any to rectify that.
And here I was, on a rainy afternoon, feeling under the weather, watching this 1980’s artifact. And artifact it is, from clothing to technology to music and style, even the New York City landscape dominated by the World Trade Center. And Charlie Sheen, who outside of an Oliver Stone film has only worked in lightweight comedy, so it seems.
But indeed, it’s an excellent film, very effecting and effective, gaining its greatest strength from the character of Gordon Gekko, played by Michael Douglas, who rode this juicy role to a Best Actor win at the Academy Awards for that year. Gekko, the greediest of the greedy, the soullessest of the soulless, the pure 1980’s evil Wall Street businessman, is rock solid, a classic Hollywood character. And while it was hard for me to think of genre parallels from which this film extended, it feels like a classic American tale of youth seduced by money and evil, led astray amidst the insanity of the period.
It’s easy to forget that Stone is an effective filmmaker, not just a writer or cultural figure, because he has such an outsized and recognizable voice beneath the story. He’s telling you the story the way he believes in it. Whether it’s Vietnam, the White House, Wall Street, or Jim Morrison, we’re getting his version of belief, infused by truth, but not by any means objective. And while there is power within this, it’s his power as a filmmaker that crafted these visions into such iconic and moving characters and images.
Sheen is the young wannabe rich kid, grown up in Queens in a working class family, who senses that the world of the 1980’s is all about pretence and presentation. No one lives with their parents in Queens, even in they live in a tiny apartment in the Upper East Side. “There’s no nobility in being poor.” And a kid like this, whose passion, whose own American dream is about wealth, is easily seduced by the successful if completely morally bankrupt Gekko. And though he’s given fatherly advice both from his own father, played by his own father Martin Sheen, and a hard-working though never-made-it-big trader played by Hal Holbrook, he’s given into “the dark side” of the force…money.
At the core, there is a very traditional tale, dressed in the America of 1987, and peppered with a dynamic role for Douglas and quite a strong and catchy script. For Stone, to whose father he dedicates the film, the film is personal, but in a different way perhaps than his other films. This film is about the way that greed and technology melded together to give over to a financial world no longer built on the hard work of both the Wall Street types and the blue collar workers, but one in which a Pandora’s box of potential evil and greed, getting-rich-quick, has lured an entire generation into a corrupt and corrupting version of the world of his father’s, who is represented by Halbrook and Sheen senior.
I was again surprised by how effective the movie was and by what so traditional Hollywood storytelling this whole was evoked. And I feel like given due credit to Stone and Douglas and the whole of the production for really quite a strong film, not just something of 1980’s zeitgeist, something that transcends it. And while obviously this world of greed and potential greed and technology’s role in changing the realities of the stock market have only multiplied exponentially since, I guess it’s easy to see how returning to this character and this milieu isn’t necessarily just some cynical grab back to a point of relevance, but something that potentially does have power and meaning.
Now that said, I’m not predicting anything positive for the sequel, 23 years later. But it’s clear that Stone had at one time not just the pulse of American (or the world’s) interests in his own strange and very specific interpretation of things, but was also a very strong and effective filmmaker.
While I’ve made it clear that it seems that he perhaps hasn’t made a film of relevance in 15 years, I have to also admit that I haven’t seen most anything that he’s done in a long time. And while I am duly impressed by Wall Street, I don’t know what direction it means to lead me in investigating Stone’s other films. Knowing myself, I will doubtlessly see something of his, but I’m not quite sure just what at the moment. But I do want to say, I’ve been less generous to Stone in my estimation over the years, and I have to state that when he got it, he got it.