Oliver Stone’s slick and glistening Wall Street may be known for its famous Gordon Gecko (Michael Douglas) quote “greed is good,” but a far more disturbing utterance comes earlier in the film from the eager young upstart, Bud Fox (Charlie Sheen), who yearns to make it as a heavy financial hitter. After losing big at his day trader Manhattan gig, Bud walks into the New Jersey dive bar where his father, Carl (Martin Sheen), shares a few beers with union buddies. After embarrassingly asking for money, Bud laments the situation with a condescending stab at Carl’s blue-collar life: “There is no nobility in poverty anymore, Dad.” In one phrase, Bud connects a decade’s worth of blood, sweat, and sacrifice with being poor, a dagger to the ideological heart of hardworking America that remains pertinent to this very day in the form of mass foreclosures, worthless stocks, and financially broken families.
From its glossy opening credits highlighting the World Trade Center to its emphasis on cutting edge 1980s technology, Wall Street plays like a haunted time capsule of visual icons dated by the extreme expansion of capitalism. Skylines, buildings, and inanimate objects overwhelm the people, emotions, and beliefs. The soft-shell narrative builds on the All About Eve foundation of a student accepted into a specialized world by a diabolical teacher, only to fall prey to the alluring dangers of the profession. Bud’s trajectory upward from low-level phone junky to Gecko’s right-hand man is fascinating for his diversity of shady roles. First, Gecko uses Bud as a one-time tool for insider information, and later as a human front for his illegal dealings. During Bud’s lowest moment, he acts as a cheap private detective, following Gecko’s arch nemesis (Terence Stamp), then reporting back barks of information like a loyal dog to its master. When Bud’s work finally starts paying off in the currency of cars, luxury lofts, and oodles of money, Stone begins to separate the two characters, making their relationship even more dependent on Gecko’s sly motivations and manipulative comments.
This dynamic between dealer and addict plays well in the fast lane of Wall Street’s first half, building Bud as an arrogant and ultimately ignorant yuppie primed for an epic fall. But Sheen’s performance begins to show extreme cracks in range during the more emotional final act. His reactions are unable to distinguish moral dilemma from outright melodrama, and Bud becomes a caricature of the whiney, self-indulgent neophyte posing as a high-end player. This comes to a head during Bud’s Jerry Maguire-style perp walk late in the film, a facile moment where Sheen turns from power broker to pouting cry-baby in a matter of steps. Standing up against Douglas’s bravura scenery chewing makes this a hard balancing act for Stone, whose direction often descends into cliché as Gecko falls prey to less superior foes. In all honesty, what seemed like a tangible and dynamic tragedy in my younger years now feels diminished by haphazard familiarity and languishing sentimentality for a character’s plight, something recent Stone films like World Trade Center have been guilty of as well.
Much has been made about the irony of Wall Street and its effect (or lack thereof) on the business it skewers. Despite its tragic implications of reckless speculation and greed, Wall Street became a cinematic credo for those very people it condemns. Posters of the film hang in lobbies of Wall Street’s most powerful firms, glorifying the most glamorous aspects of the film while ignoring its final thesis. This can be attributed to the Stone’s brilliant success at fetishizing extreme capitalism and terrible failure at representing the cost of such a lifestyle. Sure, Gecko might get caught and go to jail at the end of Wall Street, but as is the case with many villains, wait long enough and you’ll get a sequel. With the current financial state and the very real risk of a double dip recession, it seems Bud’s quote still rings true in all the wrong people’s minds, much more so than any of grandstanding parables from Gecko’s verbal repertoire.
This standard-definition transfer adds nothing to the DVD versions already in circulation. Ralph Richardson's hazy cinematography is defined more by camera movement than visual clarity, and much of the film is clouded in a gray tint of smog and smoke. The character's faces display little texture in the skin tone, while the darkness levels are adequately measured. The sound design fares a bit better, with all of the dialogue and music cues readily clear and concise. Still, skip this cheap and menial transfer for a hi-def edition down to the road.
The Insider Trading Edition is an obvious ploy to get people talking about Oliver Stone's sequel coming out next week, which wouldn't be a bad thing if this double disc actually had some quality extras. Instead, we get a chopped-up, two-minute roundtable between Stone, Josh Brolin, Carey Muliigan, and Shia LeBouf about the original film's merits and impact on both Hollywood and Wall Street. A longer, more nuanced version of this discussion might have been interesting, but none of the conversations are allowed any sort of depth, and each participant comes off in a negative, almost pompous light. Even worse is the 11-minute feature "Fox Legacy" starring studio head Tom Rothman musing on the attractions of villains in cinema, specifically Michael Douglas's great turn as Gecko. This low-budget hack job of a production never attempts to hide Rothman's melodramatic assertions about acting and Hollywood filmmaking. Also included is a super low-budget interactive feature entitled "Wall Street: Fact Exchange," which displays a ticker tape of information at the bottom of the screen while the film unfolds. If you ever wanted to know how many people use the Staten Island ferry, this feature is for you. Lastly, Stone provides a rambling but inspired commentary track, throughout which he discusses a wide range of subjects like his own past experiences working in the stock market, meeting Frank Sinatra, and directing Douglas.
Unfortunately, Wall Street remains a fascinating specimen of modern-day American power lust, a tragic moral lesson our financial players have yet to learn.