The History Place - Movie Review

Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps

By Jim Castagnera
Special to The History Place

Director Oliver Stone is Hollywood’s king of conspiracy theories.  In JFK he posited a coup d’etat, engineered by the military-industrial establishment, which wanted a war in Vietnam.  In W he has Dick Cheney tell Colin Powell, who wonders about America’s exit strategy prior to the 2003 Iraq invasion, “You just don’t get it, Colin.  We’re never leaving.”

Resurrecting Gordon Gecko after 23 years, Stone writes his version of the history of the Great Recession of 2008: “The greatest transfer of wealth from main street to Wall Street in history.”  The thing about Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps, as with JFK and W, is that Stone just might be right. 

In engineering the greatest financial bailout of all time–some $800 billion of taxpayer’s money–President Obama played down Wall Street’s culpability for the debacle, which gobbled up half of Middle America’s pension assets.  But I think all us common folk felt more than a little foolish, as executives at AIG and other bailout beneficiaries rewarded their own ineptitude with massive bonuses from the bailout bucks.  Stone’s sequel to his 1987 saga of insider trading plays to our anger and frustration.


The principal villain in the sequel is played by Josh Brolin, who brilliantly portrayed Bush the Younger in W.  In contrast to his Bretton James, Michael Douglas’s Gordon Gecko appears almost benign.  The film opens with Gecko emerging from prison, having done eight years of hard time for the insider shenanigans for which he got busted in the finale of Stone’s 1987 film.

This time around, Shia LeBeouf is the young upstart, who falls under Gordon’s spell–but only after first falling for his daughter, Winnie, a campaigner for green energy.  The story proceeds on two levels.  The Great Recession from which we are still reeling drives the larger drama.  Brolin’s Bretton leads an AIG-like financial juggernaut, too big to be allowed to fail.  If the financial jargon and Byzantine plot lines are at times a bit hard to follow, well, wasn’t that just how the whole financial-market meltdown appeared to all us main-streeters?

The lesser drama involves Gecko’s efforts at reconciliation with his estranged daughter, played by Carey Mulligan.  A little matter of a $100-million trust fund, salted away by Gordon for Winnie in Geneva, overshadows dad’s maudlin machinations to win back Winnie.  Does he want her love or her money–or maybe both?  LeBeouf’s Jake Moore won’t know for certain until the film’s final scene.

In between Gecko’s release from the slammer and his closing encounter with Winnie and Jake, Stone indulges in some mild acts of nostalgia.  Charlie Sheen does a cameo, as the middle-aged rendition of the Gecko protégé who wore a wire and entrapped Gecko two decades ago in the climax of the original Wall Street.  Other, minor characters from the first film also make brief appearances, as does Stone himself.  Taking a page from Alfred Hitchcock’s repertoire, he pops briefly in and out of several scenes as an unnamed investor.

And, not to ignore the housing market’s collapse, Stone gives us Susan Sarandon, as Jake’s hopelessly leveraged, real estate developing mama.  After mom taps out Jake’s last $30,000 and complains that “it’s not enough” to save her properties from foreclosure, her son tells her it’s time for her to go back to work.  “You mean a real job?” she blurts incredulously.  (A little later, we see her in a nurse’s uniform.  Stone suggests she is a whole lot better back as the nurse she once was than as the realtor she had hoped to be.)

Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps is nowhere near Stone’s best film.  No great performances stick in the mind while driving home from the theater.  And for once, his conspiracy theory probably falls short of the conniving and manipulations that actually went into and came out of the meltdown. 

On balance, though, Stone fans and students of economic history alike should find the film to be two hours and 13 minutes well spent.  The recent revelation that Michael Douglas is battling what may be a fatal malignancy adds to the nostalgic aspects of the movie.  It’s also a pretty good take on the history of our immediate past and a worthwhile sequel not only to its 1987 namesake, but also to the early years of Bush’s presidency at the start of this first, tumultuous decade of the 21st century ala W (which I reviewed for The History Place in October 2008, just as the Great Recession was getting up steam).

Rated PG-13 for brief strong language and thematic elements.

Jim Castagnera, a Philadelphia journalist and lawyer, is the author of "Al Qaeda Goes to College: Impact of the War on Terror on American Higher Education" (Praeger 2009) and Handbook for Student Law (Peter Lang 2010). 

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