Has there ever been a public crisis less accessible to the camera than the 2008 bursting of our financial bubble? After all, money never sleeps, as the subtitle of Oliver Stone’s second Wall Street tells us, yet in recent years this has become more difficult to photograph and dramatize. Money now travels far and wide, even disappears, at the touch of a finger on a computer keyboard. And the maneuvers it goes through: subprime loans, the securitizing of mortgages, insurance swaps.... For these dangerous practices, set in motion by civil-seeming men in sterile offices, invisible money was launched into cyberspace via electric circuits. In filming It’s a Wonderful Life (1946), Frank Capra could stage a hyper-dramatic scene of a gossip-inspired run on a savings-and-loan, thus giving the actors plenty of scenery to chew, and even in Stone’s first Wall Street (1987), in which insider trading was the major villainy, the collusion of financial sharks could be shown pretty concretely. But on the Wall Street of the 2000s, though malfeasance begins, as always, in the hearts of men, electricity rules the actual transactions. And, assuming you’re not Benjamin Franklin or Baron von Frankenstein, where’s the fun in watching electricity?
Of course, a filmmaker can always show the misery of a would-be homeowner stuck with a seductive mortgage he can no longer pay, or the desperation of an aging worker who’s discovered her 401(k) has evaporated just before retirement. But Oliver Stone doesn’t deal much with such suffering. To be sure, he gives us the suicide of the decent owner of a ruined brokerage firm, but the fall of such an individual doesn’t reflect the damage done to the whole country. The hero’s mother (Susan Sarandon), a real estate agent stuck with houses she can no longer sell, is certainly typical in her plight, but she’s portrayed as such a ninny that she becomes too ridiculous for pathos. No, Stone is more fascinated by powerful villainy than powerless suffering, so his real problem is how to make not just villainy but the very speed of high finance filmable.
Sometimes Stone employs visual razzle-dazzle, including computer animation. Much of this works, as when the camera glides over the desks of shouting stockbrokers and Stone cuts to the giant TV screens positioned nearby on which CNN commentators are announcing imminent collapse. But the graphics just as often produce clichés, as in the images of skyscrapers collapsing like dominos. Or sometimes the animation is simply misplaced, as when the hero’s energy-saving project gets a cartoon demonstration when he tries to verbalize it. In an instant we are yanked away from capitalistic melodrama into some Bell Telephone TV science special from the 1950s.
More successfully, Stone displays the lifestyles of the temporarily rich and meretriciously famous. His superb cinematographer, Rodrigo Prieto, captures the sheen of a philanthropy dinner, the candles at each banquet table casting their glow upward on the self-satisfied faces of the new masters of the universe.
But the real ace up the director’s sleeve is Gordon Gekko, the villain of the first Wall Street, and, thanks to Michael Douglas’s low-simmering malevolence, one of the supreme portraits in the motion picture gallery of Villains You Love To Hate. This time, however, Stone doesn’t play the ace effectively.
Coming out of prison, the apologist of Greed Is Good functions as a sort of mentoring Mephisto to the Faust of Jake Moore (Shia LaBeouf), a young trader engaged to Gekko’s daughter. Moore is out to avenge the ruin of his former employer, whose suicide was caused by Bretton James (Josh Brolin), a demon who out-Gekkos Gekko. Thus we get two narrative currents: (a) Is Gekko truly reformed, and will he help Moore get revenge? and (b) Will Moore, getting close to James in order to defeat him, end up being seduced by James’s wealth-engendering schemes? The script (by Allan Loeb and Stephen Schiff) never harnesses the two storylines. For too much of the running time, Gekko remains a spectator/commentator instead of a dynamic participant in the action. If the script had presented Gekko and Moore as a team combating a common enemy, with the younger man benefiting from his prospective father-in-law’s experience while simultaneously resisting the malevolence at the root of that savvy, a drama of some complexity might have emerged. But the writing is too circuitous and lacking in invention for that, while LaBeouf is such a one-dimensional actor that we never feel a significant soul is in danger. And even Gekko, good as Douglas still is in the role, is sentimentalized by dialogue that never rises above “I can’t make things right, but I can make them better.”
Even if this film had had more tension, the nature of today’s financial villainy might have escaped it. To survey the pitfalls of the way we live now, documentary is in order, not melodrama. Stay tuned for Inside Job, the new documentary in which the real Gordon Gekkos are on exhibit.
Computers are closer to the heart of The Social Network, which is about the creation of Facebook. Yet there is nothing that eludes the camera in the film. All the wheeling and dealing and the ethical corner-cutting are accomplished not online but among human beings in dorm rooms, restaurants, and business offices. Directed by David Fincher and written by Aaron Sorkin, the movie clearly announces its theme in the opening scene, when Harvard sophomore Mark Zuckerberg’s girlfriend decides to break up with him because she realizes he is corroded by resentment of the upper-crust Big Men on Campus who won’t let him into their exclusive off-campus clubs. Her parting shot: he’ll never have any luck with women not because he’s a nerd but because he’s “an asshole.” Like Wagner’s Alberich (in Das Rheingold) deciding that, if he can’t have love, then he’ll just have to rule the world, Zuckerberg invents Facebook. The blatant irony is that this self-obsessed, nearly friendless soul puts together a site on which, eventually, 500 million people will “friend” one another.
Is this the real Mark Zuckerberg? The question is irrelevant since the entire film takes place in Sorkinland, a mythical country (familiar to all viewers of The West Wing) where young people involved in crucial enterprises all talk a mile a minute while staring into each other’s eyes with fanatical, sexy intensity as the wisecracks fly back and forth and nobody lets anyone else ever complete a sentence because everybody knows what everybody else is thinking. When Warren Beatty and Robert Towne were collaborating on a script and Towne was crafting one gemlike sentence after another, Beatty pointedly remarked, “You know, you don’t have to kill with every single line.” There are times when I wish Sorkin had been on hand to hear that.
But, to be sure, the movie grips and entertains. You lean forward in your seat trying to catch the overcaffinated dialogue, and there is undeniable fascination in the way overachievers dash from meeting to meeting, topping one another’s ideas and driving everyone crazy. Furthermore, Fincher proves to be an oddly effective visualizer of Sorkin’s script. In movies such as Seven, Alien 3, and Zodiac, Fincher staged sinister goings-on in dank, rainy locales where monsters stalked. The murk thickens in The Social Network, from which Fincher and cinematographer Jeff Cronenweth have banished the least ray of sunlight (even when Mark moves to California). Every single color except nauseous green, melancholy blue, and studious brown has been eliminated (though red makes a special guest-star appearance on the jerseys of some Harvard rowers in a regatta scene). Here the Harvard campus becomes a darkling field where serial killers might stalk, and dorm rooms are crummy cells breeding betrayal.
Why does this color scheme work so well for a movie about bright young people? It provides a context of foreboding, even doom for events that otherwise might seem exhilarating. All this electrical energy, human and nonhuman, is headed ultimately for offices where sober adults will coldly scrutinize the dollar-and-cents outcomes of what brainy children so passionately and fecklessly conceived. After all the brainstorming come the fact-checking and the affidavits. Welcome to the real world, kids.
About the Author
Richard Alleva has been reviewing movies for Commonweal since 1990.