“Greed – for a lack of a better word – is good.” So said Michael Douglas‘ Gordon Gekko in Oliver Stone‘s iconic 1987 film. As he did so, he summed up the ideology promoted by the ultra-rich during the Reagan/Thatcher era. This ideology continued and expanded until the Great Crash of 2008, when the new financial aristocracy’s castles were found to be built in the air, and ‘the law of gravity asserted itself’, to paraphrase Karl Marx. But most of them needn’t have worried, because governments around the world bailed them out, and more than likely you are very concerned about your employment prospects and government services as a direct result. ‘Investment banker’ is now a term of abuse, and Strongbow even had an anti-banker advert on before my screening (“Ooooh, the anger dollar!”, in the words of Bill Hicks).
In short, it is no exaggeration to say that the events depicted in this film – the lead-up to the Crash, the Crash itself, and the events immediately following it – are the most historically significant of the century so far. Unfortunately, as so often in the past, Stone has brought controversial moments to the big screen, but he has failed to make much sense of them.
Having done eight years for insider trading, Gekko is now out, and is rebranding himself as something of a doom-monger, warning Wall Street of the disaster coming once the subprime mortgage bubble bursts. He tells a lecture hall of students that catastrophe is inevitable, because financial speculation has become totally divorced from production of goods or useful services. The students laugh, and buy his book, but he is shouting into the void – speculators are unable to see beyond short term profit.
Meanwhile, young trader Jacob Moore (Shia LaBeouf) has just got his first million dollar bonus cheque from fictional investment bank Keller Zabel, so he is also blind to what’s coming. But Jacob wants to marry Gecko’s estranged daughter Winnie (Carey Mulligan), so he befriends the old stager, and taps into his advice once Keller Zabel goes belly up.
Certain scenes have emotional impact, such as when the numbers turn red and the panic sets in. Stone borrows graphics techniques from a billion ‘cool’ movies, so things split and slide all over the place, to reasonably good effect. Douglas and LaBeouf are excellent, with the latter showing he has a decent future in more serious roles, should he want it.
But there are major problems. The love story between Jacob and Winnie is pushed way too far into the foreground. Even as a love story, it’s uninspired, but it’s just damn irritating when the future – my future and yours – hangs in the balance. I found myself trying to look behind the young couple, to check if anything significant was happening.
Perhaps more importantly, Stone reduces the inevitably chaotic workings of the capitalist system to the behaviour of reckless individuals, rather than explaining them by those individuals, in their particular social setting. Gekko – and presumably through him Oliver Stone – even has a go at “everyone”, indicting you and me as well as the banksters for the crisis. Apparently, we all lived beyond our means. Well yes, some of us had our means extremely curtailed over the space of a few decades, particularly by people in fancy suits. Contrary to what David Cameron says, we are not “all in this together”. Despite everything in this film, the rich are still getting richer, and the poor are still getting poorer. The elastic can only be stretched so far before it snaps back.