The long-awaited sequel to the 1987 classic movie “Wall Street” offers the audience another morality tale that, like the original, may send a very different message than what was intended by the film maker.
In the original “Wall Street,” Oliver Stone set out to expose what he believed was rampant greed in the 1980s as embodied by rogue insider trading kingpin Gordon Gekko. Although Gekko is clearly the intended villain in the first movie, to most people who watched the movie he has become a cult hero.
Rather than being seen as a sleazy criminal, he is more often perceived as a dynamic, charming entrepreneur. Part of this may be due to a great performance by actor Michael Douglas, but another part of it is related to an innate desire that most people have to root for the individual who squares off against the system.
Gekko may be a lot of unsavory things, but he is first and foremost his own man. He also says and does many things that appeal to people. He comes from nothing and made it big. He loves to compete and win. He is not afraid of a challenge. He takes care of his own. He has a sense of humor. He knows how to beat the system. He is true to himself.
These are things that most people admire. Yes, he breaks the law. However, the intended good guys in the movie, such as Bud Fox’s dad and Lou Mannheim, come across as being out of touch with reality, scared, and helpless. They do not earn the respect of the audience. Bud Fox especially does not come across as a sympathetic individual. He has no character. He betrays everyone in the movie, not just Gekko. He is a spoiled and ignorant child. I don’t think this was the intent of Oliver Stone, but this is how most people have come to interpret the movie.
In the sequel, the new villain seems to be the system itself on Wall Street. Stone focuses on the financial crisis of 2008, the demise of several big investment banks, and the role played by the government in the collapse. Stone portrays government leaders as cutting backroom deals with certain favored banks at the expense of other banks. As we know, this is exactly what happened at that time.
The symbolic figure representing this corrupt system is Bretton James, who runs a large bank, is trading illegally for his own account, conspires to destroy another bank because he dislikes the man running it, and has a direct line to the Treasury Department to bail him out whenever he wants. The hero seems to be young trader Jake Moore, who ends up working with Gekko to take on Bretton James and the system for the apparently noble objective of funding an important source of clean and renewable energy.
In contrast to the last movie, it seems that Stone intentionally makes Gekko a much more sympathetic figure. He served a lot of time in prison. His money is gone or at least out of reach in his daughter’s name. His family was destroyed by the insider trading scandal. He has become an author and critic of the corrupt system on Wall Street. He wants to reconcile with his daughter.
Once again, Gekko manages to outsmart everyone, make a billion dollars off the financial crisis, and even come across as generous at the end of the movie by trying to help Jake and his daughter get back together by giving away a fortune of his own money to their pet clean energy project. Although he does partially betray Jake, this time Gekko does it all without even breaking the law.
Jake, on the other hand, while definitely a more sympathetic character than Bud Fox, is not much of a hero. He’s arrogant, vengeful, dishonest, and petulant. He’s the classic Wall Street liberal. He wants the money and the power just as much as everyone else, but he doesn’t want to admit it. He wants to think that he’s different because he rides a motorcycle, has an environmentalist fiancé, and supports clean energy companies, but that is just window dressing.
At the end, he’s just a younger, hipper version of Bretton James. He wants to be part of the system until he sees that he can’t win. It’s only then that he turns against it with Gekko’s help. Jake is also very weak. He continues to bail out his mother even though he knows it isn’t helping her. He’s easily duped by Gekko with an appeal to his vanity and desire for revenge against Bretton James.
Bretton James is also not much a villain. He is really just a functionary. We see that he really has no power. He’s just a cog in the machine. Once he becomes a liability, the machine spits him out. You can almost feel sorry for him. He has no idea how insignificant he is until it is too late and the rug is pulled from under him by the people around him who he thought were his friends. His character is more pathetic than despicable.
The most striking and disturbing part of the movie is a portrait of decadent New York society in 2008. The night club scenes, the outlandish charity events that are excuses to show off, the opulent jewelry and clothing, the egotistical, stupid bankers, and the frigid women who’ve had way too much cosmetic surgery are all symbols of a society on the brink of collapse. The real evil in Stone’s new movie is New York society itself. It is portrayed, accurately, as a society in decline, out of touch with reality, populated by vain, stupid, arrogant elitists who are really parasites feeding at the trough provided by our own government and the taxpayers. Again, in contrast to these hollow elites, Gekko seems quite the hero. He is not only smarter. He also has more character. He is his own man.
hether Stone intended to or not, he has created in Gekko probably the greatest example of why market capitalism and the individual’s pursuit of self-interest are superior both morally and economically to all forms of socialism and collectivism, even the bizarre form of socialism for the rich that we currently have on Wall Street today.