No doubt the intemperate, even nutty, comments made by Oliver Stone, director of “Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps,” which opens today, have drastically shrunk the potential audience of his film. In a way that’s a shame, because for all of Stone’s faults, and for all the movie’s faults, there’s an important message--about how our free enterprise system has been perverted into a bailout system for the well-connected--that deserves to be heard.
The new film, of course, is a sequel to 1987’s “Wall Street,” which introduced Michael Douglas as Gordon “greed is good” Gekko.
And if the original movie had much to say about Wall Street and its ways in the 80s, so does this new film about the “aughts” and, now, the “teens.” As one character in “Money Never Sleeps” sighs in world-weary wonderment, “We’re making money on our losses--how do we make money on losses?” Knowing that such a whacked-out system can’t last long, he hands a favored protege a bonus check for $1.4 million and says to the young man, “Spend it--somebody has to keep our economy going.”
Soon the elder character, played by Frank Langella, is dead, his firm bankrupt. For his part, the young man, played by Shia LaBeouf, is off on an a wild ride of making money and losing money.
The further message of the film is that the Wall Street crash of 2007-08 could happen again, because little has changed from two or three years ago.
During that harrowing period, when the speculative real estate bubble of the ‘00s burst, the threat of another Great Depression provoked President George W. Bush to propose a $700 billion Troubled Asset Relief Program (TARP, also known as “The Bailout”), which was supported by majorities in Congress, including the two major-party presidential candidates that year, John McCain and Barack Obama.
Indeed, the TARP legislation, which Bush signed into law on October 3, 2008 -- just two weeks after he proposed it -- was rushed through Congress so quickly that no serious thought was given to salary or bonus caps to the recipients of that bailout money. Therefore, much of the TARP money simply went into the pockets of those bankers--“speculators” is a more apt word for these pinstriped gamblers--who had caused the problem in the first place. And if one of the prime beneficiaries of the bailout was Goldman Sachs, the former employer of then Treasury Secretary Hank Paulson... Well, how ‘bout that. What an amazing coincidence. TARP was bipartisanship, not at its best, but at its worst.
Today, as we all know, Americans suffer from high unemployment, slow growth, huge deficits, and extra trillions added to the national debt.
Yet interestingly enough, many of the banks and bankers that were at the heart of the crisis--few of which would have survived if not for TARP-- are back to their old tricks, gambling trillions, making billions, and paying themselves bonuses in the many millions.
The country might be so broke that some localities are letting asphalt roads revert back to trails, but Manhattan is bustling once again. And D.C., too, is doing well.
Floyd Norris, a centrist business writer for The New York Times surveyed the problem then and regulatory efforts to fix the problem now:
Two years later, the banks hope we have forgotten. It should be well known how we got into the financial crisis that brought on a worldwide recession and financial crisis. The banks acted horribly irresponsibly and had far too little capital and liquidity to survive without bailouts.
Describing international efforts to rein in the worst casino-ish abuses, Norris added, “The best that can be said about the new standards is that they are better than the old ones.” But, he continued, “The rules were not nearly as tough as they could be.”
Yet as is readily apparent from a scan of headlines, the political culture in Washington has mostly lost interest in true financial reform; politicians have been happy simply to paper over the problem, leaving many of the worst offenders, including Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, shrunken but still dangerously intact and independent.
As for Washington, D.C.-based reporters, most of them were never all that interested in the issue--or were never able to understand it. We might further speculate that for as long as the bailout system of Washington is being run by the Obama administration, reporters will have a hard time rousing themselves to muckraking outrage.
In other words, if New York and Washington are in the tank--part of the big fix, we might say-- this would have been a great time for cinematic art to speak truth to power. This would have been the perfect moment for a talented movie director to weigh in with a brave and barely fictionalized look at what happened on Wall Street only yesterday--and maybe tomorrow.
Indeed, a brave film would extend the critique to a whole country that seemed determined, year after year, to live beyond its means. Speaking cynically in the new film to a group of students about the inevitable next surge of greed, followed by the equally inevitable bubble-popping, Gordon Gekko warns, “It will happen again, because we like to be lied to.”
Is Gekko right? Are we doomed to repeat the mistakes of the past? Or can we repent, and learn, and do better? A wise and good movie--think “The Ox-Bow Incident” or “To Kill a Mockingbird” or “On The Waterfront”--can inspire us to change our ways.
Unfortunately, Oliver Stone is not the director to deliver such a message. Stone was once known for making such courageous movies such as “Platoon” and “Born on the Fourth of July.” Yet now he seems to spend much of his time attacking George W. Bush, Dick Cheney, and Sarah Palin; Just last year he made a whole documentary praising Fidel Castro and Hugo Chavez. As if that weren’t enough, Stone even seemed to defend Hitler’s memory against “Jewish domination of the media”-- although he did apologize for that one.
Indeed--warning!! Spoiler alert! I’ll say it again, spoiler alert!!--Stone isn’t even true to his own critical-of-casino-capitalism convictions. For the first 90 percent of the film, we get a bleak portrait of deep corruption. Yes, the movie is replete with memorable performances from Langella, LaBeouf, Susan Sarandon, and many others onscreen only for a few seconds, but the real star is money itself, spreading its tentacles “like a cancer,” as Gekko says with a smirk.
And yet at the end of the film, Gekko miraculously switches from knowing villain to do-gooding hero. Moreover, Gekko the Good gets help from a liberal website, thumping the tub for--what else?--green energy. So the movie ends with the main characters being rich and liberal. Think of it as a fairy tale co-written by John Kerry and Arianna Huffington.
If that doesn’t appeal to you, fine--don’t see the movie. But you should still worry about the next bubble, the next crash, and the next bailout. Because Stone is right about one thing: Money, and its cancerous effect, never sleeps.
James P. Pinkerton is a writer, Fox News contributor and the editor/founder of SeriousMedicineStrategy.
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