Oliver Stone preaches a fiery sermon about greed, selling out, materialism, and all that. He can’t seem to help himself. It’s one of his more accessible films, though. The story is straightforward, about as comprehensible as any story about Wall Street is likely to be. There are a number of stereotypes to help us keep on the path. Hal Holbrook, for instance, works at the same brokerage firm as Sheen, but he’s never going to win any prizes. He’s steady, principled, and thoroughly marginalized. He dispenses an old hand’s advice to Sheen. The advice runs along lines like these: “There comes a time when a man stares into the abyss, and there’s nothing looking back at him. That’s when a man finds his character. And that’s what keeps him out of the abyss.” So far we’ve been hearing quotes from Sun Tzu’s “The Art of War,” but I think Holbrook has been dipping into Khalil Gibran.
The performances are adequate, not much more than that, despite the Oscar that went to Michael Douglas. Douglas does get a chance to make his famous speech though — you know, “Greed is good.” I give Gordon Gekko credit. He’s up front about the whole thing. “Greed”, he tells us, “captures the essence of evolution.” Those who rise to the top deserve to be there. Only the losers sink to the bottom, and the herd needs occasional pruning to flourish. It’s true. Ask Paris Hilton. Ask Herbert Spencer. Well — Spencer is dead, so you’ll have to ask some other Social Darwinist. There are plenty of them on the blogs and on television and on the news boards.
Some people think of that speech, and the film in which it’s embedded, as a chronicle of the greedy 1980s but I think it still applies. When I was in a college bookstore long ago, Machiavelli was considered sort of a manipulative scumbag, but I recently noticed a paperback of “The Prince” with a cover design illustrating a hand, palm up, and a dozen people standing in it. (“You can have the world in the palm of your hand if you read this book on how to effectively manipulate others.”) From villain to guru in twenty years….