Wall Street 2: Money Never Sleeps (2010), dir. Oliver Stone
23 years ago, Wall Street had it all: fat ties and golden tie buttons, suspenders, cocaine, Daryl Hannah. It consumed the zeitgeist of the 80s and spat it back out with cold venom. No one can forget how gaunt Gordon Gekko was—he looked like he should have had the heaviest shadows under his eyes (but this was Hollywood and of course he had nothing of the sort).
There are so many Gordon Gekkos that have come out of our culture—people who swallow the cruelty of a generation wholesale and spit it out with extra fire–but just because Gekko is a type doesn’t mean we’ve had one in a while. While the 80s were easy to embody, to critique, and be dissatisfied with, Bush was too much of a buffoon for anyone to really do anything but groan. Haven’t you missed Gekko? I have.
Wall Street 2 is as much a rehabilitation of Gekko as it is a basic NPR-level lecture on the financial meltdown: Gordon goes from disheveled to slicked back, from washed-up resort-style dad to the elegant power suits we remember from ’87. Paired with Shia LeBoeuf and set against Bretton James, a villain played by Josh Brolin, Michael Douglas’ Gekko is all the more captivating a character. Bretton James is exactly the kind of corporate villain we’ve come to expect. He has no bravado, a touch of an accent held over from his rural roots wherever, a few uninteresting hobbies. Gekko has vision and these guys all wear bifocals.
Stone depicts the milieu of Manhattan’s financial services industry with a fascinating admiration and intrigue: he never passes up the opportunity to show us an ornate earring or luxurious tie, a glance at the world’s elite side by side during a gala at the Metropolitan Museum. There’s admiration in those scenes: we love these people, and we want them to stay on top. I don’t know why. What we need is a villain who can move among them, someone with the severity and playfulness—not to mention hair—of another conservative icon everyone manages to miss: Ronald Reagan.
In 1967 J.G. Ballard wrote a short story called “Why I Want to Fuck Ronald Reagan,” which I think is very relevant towards a discussion of the strange nostalgia for him—via his more charming proxy, Gordon Gekko—in Wall Street 2. Ballard discusses the allure of Reagan’s hair, which is always in place and has the power of the lacquer we see on Don Draper. Perhaps its something about Gekko’s white-haired vitality—he seems like someone who takes a lot of Viagra, which is enough to sway, in 2010 anyway–but no matter how much we judge him or moralize him, no matter how incredibly impossible we find it to rationalize his misdeeds in greed’s holy name, he’s still the only villain we can trust and root for and love.
Stone never forgets to illustrate the speed of techno-life. His camera inhabits a digital city, where cable news shows make up the windows of high-rises and stock data travels quickly on the streets. Split screen montages show information travelling between Manhattan’s wealthiest players. Eli Wallach, playing a toothless prophet of profit, insists that the financial crisis will mean curtains: things move so much faster now, he says. All the ATMs will stop spitting out money at the same time. It’s the apocalypse, and every apocalypse needs its angels and its horsemen. Bretton James and the whippersnappers like Shia LeBoeuf might suffice for the horsemen of high capital, but no one but Gekko can be the angel. The title of the film contains all the eroticism: money never sleeps because he’s a whore who’s always out fucking somebody else. Gordon Gekko never sleeps and we love it that way.