Recently, the film Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps was recently released on DVD, and with that, I found it fitting to comment on the deeper meanings of the film itself. By no means is this film a spectacular experience, but there is a host of imagery and underlying concepts to look out for as you watch the story unfold. The following is a section of a paper we had to prepare on corporate culture.
Beneath the Surface
Oliver Stone is a highly outspoken director, and he uses no restraint in expressing his views in a myriad of ways. For behind the acting and the story of the characters in the film, lies an entire other story, a story that few actual viewers even discover, and it is only when you pay attention to the cues to this story that it will be revealed. Money Never Sleeps is loaded with imagery and metaphors alike, all of which hold true to Stone’s views on corporate and political issues in America. Some of the techniques are subtle, requiring a close eye or ear to catch them, others are more outspoken, but all serve the same purpose. That purpose is to persuade the audience to see America’s society through a particular lens; Stone is holding that lens in this movie, you are looking through it.
One of the most visible themes that Stone puts into the open in the film is the concept of Greed. From Stone’s first Wall Street Film came the famous Gordon Gekko phrase; ‘Greed is Good’. And although both the original and the sequel film portray very capitalist ideals, one should not be mistaken into thinking that this portrayal is done so in a positive manner. Alternatively, Stone does a good job in exploring the quick highs, and shiny exploits of a greedy Gordon Gekko, a greedy Bretton James, a greedy America.
Earrings and Cars
Throughout Money Never Sleeps, there is a constant portrayal of the shiny exploits of greedy endeavors. Stone places these images of the wealthy throughout the film, in varying levels of exposure. For example, the constant presence of expensive cars and motorcycles is shown. The motorcycle leads this image of toys of the wealthy, and breaks open with Shia Labeouf’s character Jake riding his motorcycle to work. The trend continues from hedge funder parties displaying an array of cars that cost as much as most people’s homes, to that very well sponsored bike brand of shiny Ducati’s splattered across many of the films scenes. As you look closer you’ll notice an abundance of jewelry. One particular scene which exemplifies this is when Jake attends the dinner party with his new employer Bretton James. You’ll notice the women in these scenes weighed down with massive diamond earrings and elaborate pearl necklaces. Precious stones, motorcycles and fast cars, all of which Stone uses to showcase the abundance of unnecessary wealth the greedy obtain.
One of the most striking moods Stone creates in the movie is one that reflects the nature of the discussions and transactions of the financial heads. The meetings in which Louis Zabel and Bretton James discuss financial decisions of the nation’s biggest banks take place in a room with rich wood furniture, and closed windows. This dark atmosphere accompanied by men in suits gathered around the large table portray a meeting not unlike that of some secret society making decisions about how to control the world. For it is the idea of a dark and ominous meeting place and the even darker decisions being made that Stone wishes to expose to his audience. This very idea of darkness is present even in the movie poster released for the film, in which Gekko stands over Jake; the mentor and the apprentice, with that persistent darkness creeping in from the right. In Stone’s lens, the head of financial institutions are those dark decision makers, the fate of many decided by the handshakes of a few. Once more, almost on cue, as the dealings of Bretton James’ firm become exposed, and the truth starts to escape, light begins to shine in from windows. The light of truth begins to expose those once dark deals.
What decisions are the likes of the greedy ready to make? How far will one go to achieve their goals? Stone would have you believe that the limits of the true capitalist stretch much further than you’d think. In the film, the imagery of how far greed can push people is displayed in horrific measures, so far that they span past the limitations of humanity and decency. Take for example the painting that Bretton James introduces to Jake when they enter Bretton’s office. The painting is the famous image of Saturn devouring his son. The ‘Black Paintings’ were works completed by Francisco Goya, a series of which reflect Goya’s own outlook towards life and humanity in the early 19th century. So paranoid that his children would try to overtake him and steal his power, the roman god Saturn apparently killed and ate each of his children as they were born. That very same theme paints its own bleak image that Stone uses to reflect upon the extremes in which man will go to attain power and wealth. One cannot help but think back to this imagery when Gordon Gekko himself betrays his own daughter’s final strands of trust as he swindles the 100 million dollars out of her bank account, thought to be safe in Switzerland. Through these actions, Stone does not hesitate to claim that desire for money and power hold no restraint when human beings become infected and begin to show its symptoms.
Money Doesn’t Buy Happiness
As one walks away from this film, through all the moods and imagery that the film creates, there is but one that holds significance lasting power. The character who best exhibits this theme is Louis Zabel. When Jake asks Louis if he is ok near the beginning of the film, Louis replies “good day I’m ok, bad day I’m ok, what’s the difference”. This simple phrase embodies the shear unhappiness in Louis’ life; a man who spent his entire life chasing money, looking for success and never being satisfied. The realization of all those wasted years coming too late for Louis, he tries to get through to Jake, and help him appreciate what really is important in life. The distraught life of Louis Zabel peaks in the scene where he wakes up one morning and goes through his normal routine and makes his way into the subway station. The intensity of the music alone offers a glimpse into what is about to happen. So lost was Louis Zabel, so alone in a world in which he hardly knew anymore, distancing himself from what was important in the pursuit of money. This is a devastating event for Jake, as you watch the news of his mentor’s death in the close-up of Jakes eyes. This scene serves as the tipping point for Jake, as he then begins to put the pieces of Louis’ advice together through the rest of the movie. Oliver Stone is effectively using Louis Zabel’s character to portray the simple fact that money cannot buy you happiness.
The ideas brought forward by the director are by many standards, very controversial. One could argue that this film attempts to expose activities of the political right, and at the same time presents views and even solutions from the political left. Oliver Stone as a director is quite forward in his expression of views towards political, economic, and corporate culture. These expressions often masked behind movies, but also evident in public statements as well. If you follow Oliver Stone’s films, they are consistent in their techniques used. Typically portraying a certain issue, but alluding to the controversial questions surrounding the issue throughout the film. A Vietnam War vet himself, these techniques were used in the film ‘Platoon’ in 1986. The characters and the story are only skin deep to the deeper issues he tries to expose. The focus on story and character development is hardly elaborate in any of his films, as evident by a significant amount of documentary style films he has been a part of. Take for example the films ‘JFK’, ‘Nixon’ ‘W’ and more recent ‘South of the Border’, all heavy on the political side as well. By infusing so much political subjectivity into a film, you risk validity in your work.
By leaving objectivity at the door, you induce certain implications when validity comes into play. Money Never Sleeps provides some very interesting dialogue near the end of the film. The dialogue hardly applies to the story or the characters in the film. This dialogue provided by Shia Labaeuf’s character Jake instead addresses the issues in the film that had thus far been shrouded over by the surface story. In this dialogue, Jake says “What is the definition of insanity; it is doing the same thing over and over, and expecting a different result. By that standard, most of us are insane, but not at the same time. On that basis we trust. But can this way of life endure if more and more of us are insane at the same time?” Stone is alluding to his opinion that society is insane; we are making the same mistakes over and over, and by doing so, are eroding a lifestyle we have become accustomed to. Whether directly or indirectly, the act of hinting that American values of capitalism and democracy aren’t working as a system falls into subjective expression.
Subsequently, depending on the audience, the levels of objective and subjective expression vary. An audience which agrees with the ideas put forward will view the work as more objective, while those who disagree would push it into the realm of subjectivity. True objective material allows factual information to be brought into the open, allowing the audience to form their opinions based upon the provided content. So it is the personal background of the individual that dictates the degree of subjectivity in a film.
Over all, Stone puts forth some credible arguments but lacks fluidity between the characters story and the hidden agenda. That constant bubble metaphor throughout the film will have you flipping scenes to count how many bubbles you can find. Stone uses these bubbles in an attempt to shine a somewhat positive light on the issues at hand near the end of the film. “Bubbles are evolutionary…always creating change” as heard in the final dialogue by Jake implies that there is hope despite all humanities mistakes. That as society we can learn from past errors if we so choose, and inflict the measures necessary to induce change. “Didn’t you say green’s the new bubble Jake?” are the words said to Jake by Gordon Gekko, as he informs the young couple that he put 100 million dollars into the United Fusion company. A great start, but one might scratch their head wondering if after all that has happened, if that’s all that’s required to make it better again. Stone enforces this feeling of optimism with the final scene in which all the characters are in a state of bliss celebrating the birthday of Jake and Winnie’s child. While quick fixes might not be reality, a step in the right direction is a good start.
With mixed reviews, Money Never Sleeps may not be a box office record breaker, but it does hold some significant value. As the current economy struggles to resist a double dip recession, many people are looking to the reasons why. Everyone wants to know why the housing market crashed. Taxpayers were asking why their money was being used to bailout the big banks and their bad investments. Where should we be investing for the future? A series of questions with limited answers, the real value in this film is inspiring dialogue about these issues. Louis Zabel tells Jack that he’s “asking the wrong questions”. Only as we strive to ask the right questions can we hope to achieve change. The scale on the level of change is not as important, small or big, change is nevertheless an important process. Always learning, always changing, this is the necessity for the betterment of society.