Oliver Stone's Wall Street: It Was Never About Greed

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An Oliver Stone film is a rare place for a conservative to have a revelation about the dire fragility of the American Republic. Stone is duly recognized as an exceptionally brilliant but radical filmmaker. His filmography includes landmark titles such as Platoon, Born on the Fourth of July, JFK, Natural Born Killers, and Nixon. His work is usually shunned by conservatives, however, for his defiantly contrarian view of America and its institutions; most egregiously, Stone has depicted soldiers as war criminals in Vietnam and generals as co-conspirators in the JFK assassination in his films. While Stone's early work centered on American history during the Sixties, the notable exception was Wall Street, which focused on the rarely portrayed world of finance during the 1980s boom in New York City. In the movie, Bud Fox, a young stockbroker (Charlie Sheen) is corrupted by the successful, but avowedly amoral, corporate raider Gordon Gekko (Michael Douglas). Fox ultimately repents rather than betray his father and the values he represents, but not before he succumbs (and the audience is treated) to Gekko's self-assured declaration that "greed is good". For conservatives, Stone was responsible for making Gekko's mantra the encapsulation of 1980s morality for critics of Reagan-era America.

Gordon Gekko's sermon on the virtue of greed may have captured the audience's attention and infuriated conservatives, but Stone's warnings on the nature of power in America eluded many.

Greed Only Scratched the Surface

While Gekko's speech provides the film's signature scene, the eventual confrontation with Fox imparts Stone's critique of modern America.

When Gekko turns his corporate raider sights on the airline where Fox's blue collar father works and threatens to dismantle it, Fox rebels and demands Gekko answer "how much is enough?" Gekko responds with a cynical exposition on capitalism:

It's not a question of enough, pal. It's a Zero Sum game – somebody wins, somebody loses. Money itself isn't lost or made, it's simply transferred – from one perception to another. Like magic. This painting here? I bought it ten years ago for sixty thousand dollars. I could sell it today for six hundred. The illusion has become real, and the more real it becomes, the more desperately they want it. Capitalism at its finest.

The richest one percent of this country owns half our country's wealth, five trillion dollars. One third of that comes from hard work, two thirds comes from inheritance, interest on interest accumulating to widows and idiot sons – and what I do, stock and real estate speculation. It's bullshit. You got ninety percent of the American public out there with little or no net worth. I create nothing. I own. We make the rules, pal. The news, war, peace, famine, upheaval, the price per paper clip. We pick that rabbit out of the hat while everybody sits out there wondering how the hell we did it.

To close, Gekko jests:

Now, you're not naive enough to think we're living in a democracy, are you, buddy? It's the free market.

Uttered casually, the remark is less celebrated than "greed is good" but unquestionably more representative of Stone's interpretation of power in America.

Throughout Stone's films is the recurrent theme that a corrupt and powerful few hold sway in America. The truth concerning the assassination of JFK cannot come to light because ulterior elements within the national security establishment have effected a coup d'etat. A soldier's patriotism is abused in Born on the Fourth of July and his body is crippled in a war based on lies. Even President Nixon, hardly Stone's favorite president, cannot outmaneuver what he denounces as the "beast".

Too Big To Fail

As with many of Stone's films, Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps is really two films in one.

In the foreground is Gekko's attempt at resurrection. Stone cleverly reintroduces Gordon Gekko as a prophet. Capitalizing on an insider's experience as only so few can -- especially in an increasingly Byzantine marketplace with complex financial products -- Gekko becomes an author and lecturer warning the latest round of frenzied speculation is about to end in collapse. To recall, Gekko understood the value of information and only invested in “sure things.” In contrast, the current financial elite is gambling wildly – only on misinformation. Marveling at the audacity of present-day street titans , Gekko can only remark "I'm small-time compared to these crooks."

In the background is the unfolding financial crisis that played out dramatically on front pages in September 2008, only two short years ago. In the film, Keller Zabel, the movie's Bear Stearns surrogate, is denied a bailout by the U.S. Treasury. While all the major institutions may possess assets of questionable worth, Churchill Schwartz, the surrogate for Goldman Sachs, argues against the bailout out of spite -- Keller Zabel had denied a similar request by Churchill Schwartz years earlier.

Later, the crisis Gekko had predicted is metastasizing and again the principals convene, this time to request a more comprehensive bailout for all of them.

While the sequence of the real world events are now well known, what is disheartening is how credibly the handling of the crisis is depicted. The discussion does not focus on how the government will hold the irresponsible parties accountable, but what demands the banks place on the government. In the film, the Treasury Secretary asserts the banks' demand for a bailout would constitute "socialism"; in response, the Churchill Schwartz CEO counters with the now notorious defense employed by many during that period – their institutions are simply "too big to fail." Equally unsettling – the assembled decision-makers number less than twenty, none of them elected officials. A decision of immense consequence to the nation is the domain of a select few.

The scenes expand on the critique he submitted in the first film – those who believe the United States is a democracy are ignoring the extent to which shadowy unaccountable elites exercise their influence over the country, regardless of who holds elected office.

For moviegoers, Stone is simply delivering a great drama with another dose of overwrought, but harmless paranoia thrown in. For conservatives, it's always been nothing but paranoia. In the end, America may have its flaws, but it is certainly not a fascistic plutocracy.

Or is it?

From March 2007 to August 2008, Simon Johnson was the Chief Economist of the International Monetary Fund. In his twenty-plus year career, Mr. Johnson specialized in developing practical strategies for dealing with major economic disruptions in Eastern Europe, the former Soviet Union, Africa, East Asia, and Latin America – essentially all emerging markets. Johnson explained how apprehension over a country's (for example, South Korea, Russia, or Argentina) ability to pay its debt would lead to the freezing of global credit lines. When this happened, such fears became self-fulfilling and their banks would begin to fail, just as Lehman Brothers did in September 2008. The weakness then cascades through the system threatening to collapse the economy.

The sum of his experience led him to observe the biggest obstacle to recovery, however, is almost invariably the politics of countries in crisis. The sequence of economic events always paled in comparison to a harsher reality – elite interests usually precipitated the crisis, with the implicit backing of the government, and then compelled the government to bail them out and forgo necessary systemic reforms.

In the wake of the 2008 financial crisis, Mr. Johnson could only lament how “shockingly reminiscent” the episode in America seemed to events only witnessed in emerging markets. Johnson alleged a “quiet coup” engineered by a financial oligarchy of “13 Bankers” had transpired, and worse, "the [U.S.] government seems helpless, or unwilling, to act against them."

In this vein, perhaps Stone's device of taking the audience behind the closed doors of the Federal Reserve Bank of New York is a shrewd attempt to equate the financial cabal compelling the government to bail them out of reckless investments with the clique of generals in JFK conspiring to outmaneuver Kennedy as he (allegedly) seeks to end U.S. involvement in Vietnam.

Johnson notes America's previous experience with an oligarchy was resolved only after the Great Depression prompted the government to enact robust regulatory oversight of the financial sector. The success of the reforms are evident in the lack of an equivalent oligarchy during the intervening seventy-five year period.

If the incidence of a financial oligarchy can be negated by energetic government oversight and pre-emptive dissolution of unwieldy banks, then perhaps the peril to the Republic is not as dire as Stone would depict. After all, a collection of advisors and generals hedging in the president until their desired course is the one adopted is as unseemly as when Stone first suggested it.


Too Involved To Withdraw

On September 27, 2010, Bob Woodward, a journalist at the Washington Post, released Obama's Wars, his latest inside accounting of White House decision-making, this time concerning the steps and debates leading up to the administration's decision to surge 30,000 additional troops to Afghanistan.

In Obama's War, the reader learns the degree to which Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, Chairman of Joint Chiefs of Staff ADM Mike Mullen, and then U.S. Central Command Commander GEN David Petraeus were unrelenting advocates for former GEN Stanley McChrystal's request for 40,000 additional troops to support his counterinsurgency strategy. At the eighth strategy review session, the president had to admonish the three for failing to provide alternatives:

"So what's my option? You have given me one option… We were going to meet here today to talk about three options. You agreed to go back and work those up."

Mullen protested. "I think what we've tried to do here is present a range of options."

Obama begged to differ. Two weren't even close to feasible, they all had acknowledged; the other two were variations on the 40,000.

[Later, Obama again reproved Gates.] "You have essentially given me one option. It's unacceptable." Gates replied, "Well, Mr. President, I think we owe you" another option.

It never came.

As Obama was close to approving his compromise for 30,000 troops[1] [2], he surveyed his National Security Council team one last time. According to Obama's Wars, Col. John Tien, an Iraq war veteran on the staff, warned the president he must override his own misgivings and yield to the military's demands:

I don't see how you can defy your military chain here. We kind of are where we are. Because if you tell [McChrystal], 'I got your assessment, got your resource constructs, but I've chosen to do something else,' you're going to probably have to replace him. You can't tell him, 'Just do it my way, thanks for your hard work.' And then where does that stop?

The implication was GEN McChrystal and the entire command would resign, a crisis of monumental proportions.

What of Obama's other advisors?

According to Woodward, civilian aides were cognizant of the pressure surge proponents were placing on the president, complaining the military was "boxing [him] in".

Moreover, National Security Advisor James L. Jones, U.S. Ambassador to Afghanistan Karl W. Eikenberry, and National Security Council director for Afghanistan Douglas Lute all vigorously opposed the approach recommended by Gates, Mullen, and Petraeus. The caveat -- each had been (or still were as in the case of Lute) general officers in the military.[3]

Leon Panetta, the current director of the Central Intelligence Agency (and former Chief of Staff to President Clinton) simply counseled, "No Democratic president can go against military advice, especially if he asked for it … So just do it. Do what they say."

While debate will continue as to whether candidate Barack Obama intended to prosecute the "right war" in Afghanistan or end it, he probably expected his advisors to provide him a number of options. Instead, Obama was given only one -- the option already in place. The surge had succeeded in Iraq and now the same general was in charge. Whatever misgivings the commander-in-chief had about a surge in Afghanistan, the existing national security bureaucracy had become too involved to withdraw; the president never had a choice. Or a chance.

Too Entrenched to Dislodge?

An optimist could assert the allegations of government by conspiracy are easily dismissed when one remembers the whole process only moves forward on the basis of elections. Whatever power alleged by Stone or like-minded individuals, no cabal can compel millions of voters to choose one over the other. When the electorate desires change -- inspired or otherwise -- change will result. Carter was just a peanut farmer, Reagan was just an actor, and Obama was just a community organizer, but they won against improbable odds.

The point has merit, but the divergent impulses of the politician (perpetuating their electoral monopoly) and the bureaucrat (preserving their programmatic realm) have resulted in a partisan-industrial complex and a government overly complex and ill-executed, more than prepared to co-exist. Aspiring politicians are content with excelling at retail campaigning -- the responsibility of being prepared to govern is conveniently ignored, while the entrenched bureaucracy is more than ready to compensate for their lack of preparation by providing their "expertise".

In reviewing Andrew J. Bacevich's new book “Washington Rules: America’s Path to Permanent War,” William Pfaff wrote "the degree to which the power of the American presidency over war and peace has been weakened in our day, and, in important respects, superseded. One might call this a silent coup against the presidency, … its characteristic is to create a situation in which a president is no longer free to act as he might wish, because all of the doors except one have been closed."

The only saving grace has been the ferocity with which constitutionally minded citizens have openly revolted against establishment politicians at the ballot box. Appalled by the cavalier stewardship of American blood and treasure, voters are taking elected officials and their designated successors to the woodshed.

As noted previously, success of this rebellion will essentially turn on two factors. One, the readiness of the same voters to hold their champions to even more stringent standards; integrity, once introduced to power and privilege, has an expiration date. Two, the ability of these voters to enact changes (ending gerrymandering, expanding ballot access, rationalizing campaign finance) essential to overturning the structure abutting the professional politicians' monopoly and ensuring a more responsive government.


As of October 10, Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps has earned $43,644,701.

Anthony Scaramucci, founder of Skybridge Capital hedge fund, appeared in the film as a talking head on a news program: "I'm a registered Republican; I'm a fairly free-market person. But that doesn't mean I don't have a good relationship with Oliver Stone. Oliver Stone is taking a different opinion. He believes that the lower quartile of society is suffering in a megalomaniacal capitalist society — and you know, he's probably right on some of the stuff he's saying."

[1] Eliot Cohen hypothesized a newly promoted brigadier general would be bewildered: "I don't get it. The president fired one of our truly great commanders not for things that he said but for tolerating indiscretion, disloyalty and disrespect among his subordinates -- but do these people apply anything remotely like that standard to themselves? "If the president felt he was getting bad advice, why didn't he just stop his review until he got real options? Or fire the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff? Why does he write a six-page memo that reads more like a prenuptial agreement written by a pessimistic lawyer than a strategy document? Are these guys setting up the uniforms to take the hit if this war goes south? I thought we were past that.

[2] As Eugene Robinson acidly commented, "By that point, you will note, the issue had become how sharply to escalate the war -- not whether to escalate at all."

[3] Very few pure civilians hold sway over national security policy-making and those in place were held in minimal esteem; according to Woodward, Gates asserted Tom Donilon, the deputy national security advisor, would be a "disaster" if he succeeded Jones. On 10/08/2010, President Obama announced Gen. James Jones would resign as national security advisor later this month and be replaced by Tom Donilon, the deputy national security adviser. FOX. Candidates to succeed Donilon as deputy national security advisor include GEN Lute and GEN James Cartwright, the current Vice-Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, who has become one of Obama's "favorite generals." The Cable

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