In Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps Gordon Gekko calls time “the most valuable commodity I know.” It’s the time that’s passed since last we saw Gekko which most seems to be on the mind of director Oliver Stone. Back in 1987 Gekko told us greed was good and when he said it, we weren’t supposed to adopt it as an ethos, but rather heed it as a warning of what we’d become if we didn’t turn things around. No one listened. The wheels of greed kept spinning and the bubble burst. Then it burst again. The next time it bursts we might not survive and Stone’s new movie is keenly aware that we’re running out of time to stop it, time ticking away, time in which we’re not doing anything, time in which he believes we’re not listening, time in which we’re not acting.
Time is also on the mind of Gordon Gekko who, at the start of the film, emerges from prison alone and penniless. It’s 2008 and he’s determined to make up for years wasted “in the can”. Exactly what making up for lost time means to Gordon is the great mystery of Money Never Sleeps. Has he learned the lessons Wall Street tried to teach and abandoned greed in favor of family? Or is he still after money power? Perhaps with old age he’s discovered a third option and found some sort of middle ground in capitalist paradise? It’s wondering what Gordon’s really up to that’ll keep you interested while the movie’s often twisty financial meltdown plot flies around and around like a never ending merry-go-round.
On that merry-go-round is Jacob Moore (Shia LaBeouf), a successful young Wall Street broker with money in the bank and the world at his feet. He’s dating Gordon Gekko’s daughter Winnie (CareyMulligan) when the financial world starts spinning out of control and he’s left, like everyone else, hanging on for dear life. But Jacob isn’t worried about protecting his personal wealth, he tells himself he’s interested in something nobler, or is perhaps it’s just revenge. Whatever Jacob’s after he uses Gekko to get it, or is Gekko using him? Gekko is content to sit back and let things unfold but Moore is a man who wants to do something. He attempts to act to stave off disaster, yet like most of the us outside the halls of power were back in 2008, he’s doomed to fail because he can’t possibly understand what’s really happening behind the scenes.
Yet the entire time, we the audience, are two moves ahead of everyone in the film, since we’re still sitting here in 2010 dealing with the consequences of 2008’s financial crash. Well everyone except Gekko that is. He, like us, is well aware of what’s coming and Stone’s movie attempts to, using fictional characters and fictional companies, clue us in on how it all went wrong while at the same time putting a more personal face on it all. Stone keeps us hooked throughout the number crunching, with engaging characters, incredibly slick directing, and a smooth, supremely memorable soundtrack which is almost purely David Byrne. But at some point, you have to wonder whether or not any of it matters.
Remember the central question of Money Never Sleeps isn’t whether or not greed is good, but how to use whatever time it is we have on this Earth. Time, it concludes early on, is more valuable than money and so it asks us to consider how we’re using it, not just as individuals, but as a society. Both Stone and his movie seem baffled that we’ve allowed these financial shenanigans to go on, as if it’s our fault, as if we should have all done something and instead we’ve all just wasted our time doing nothing. The bigger question being asked here isn’t how did the financial meltdown happen but why haven’t we used our time more wisely as a people, why haven’t we used our time to do something about it, why haven’t we used our time to pursue something other than greed, and how long will we wait before we do?
Except like every movie which tackles the financial crisis Money Never Sleeps doesn’t seem to have any clear direction when it comes to telling us what we’re actually supposed to do about these problems. The original Wall Street had a fairly clear ending in which Charlie Sheen’s Bud Fox sent the corrupt Gordon Gekko to jail. But in Money Never Sleeps, as it is in reality, the problem is so deep and so complex no one’s really sure what they’re supposed to do about it. The sequel’s idea of a resolution is a strongly worded blog post chiding the men who ripped off trillions of dollars from the American people to line their own pockets. Then it’s hug the ones you love and hope for the best.
And that’s really the problem, not just with this movie, but any film made centering around the global financial crisis. Everyone’s ready and willing to jump up and point out where it all went wrong, everyone’s to eager to scream that we need to stand up and do something, but no one quite seems to know what exactly it is that we’re all supposed to do about it. Early on in Money Never Sleeps Gordon Gekko, in a speech to promote his book, lays everything out on the table. He details the fundamental problem, he tells everyone where we went wrong, and how it’s going to bite us all in the ass. But when it comes time to offer a solution, to give his eager audience a real and tangible call to action, the only one Gekko has to offer is “buy my book”. And that’s the only one Stone has too. Watch his movie.
Time may be on Oliver Stone’s mind but he, like everyone else, still hasn’t figured out a more useful way for us to spend it than watching movies about how we really ought to do something. Call me when we figure out what that something is, and I’ll be first in line on our march to the capital. Until then there’s Wall Street 2, a spectacularly well made film without any real answers, and a lot of questions which have already been asked, but should probably be asked again until someone comes up with a way to answer them.