Anthony J. Pennings, PhD

WRITINGS ON DIGITAL STRATEGIES, ICT ECONOMICS, AND GLOBAL COMMUNICATIONS

Figuring Criminality in Oliver Stone’s Wall Street

Posted on | May 1, 2010 | No Comments

Perhaps no other film captured the economic changes taking place in the 1980s as did Oliver Stone’s (1987) Wall Street. Much of the financial world started to change dramatically as deregulation and technical innovation created new dangers and new opportunities for both the abuse and the creation of wealth. This post looks at how that era was represented in Wall Street and how it drew on the gangster genre to tell its story.

A financial explosion occurred in the 1980s. Business Week called it, “The Casino Society,” citing new gambling games such as futures and stock options that made it more an arena of speculating than a conduit for investment. The financial system began to operate as an “autonomous subsystem” of the broader world economy. It was fueled by a widening array of negotiable instruments such as commodities, currencies, government bonds, options, and over-the-counter stocks.

The fire was fanned even more by the new Reagan administration. It added billions of dollars of new debt to the casino. Fearing further economic stagnation, the Reagan administration was hesitant to enact legislation that might intervene and further regulate the financial environment.

Money markets have always sold themselves as vehicles for capital movement. Stock exchanges for shares aggregate wealth at a fixed point for investment. At the same time, they also provide liquidity, the ability to let investors withdraw their money when they need it. Wall Street is the primary intermediary in this movement of electronic wealth.

Stone’s story merges this financial backdrop with a story about an ambitious young newcomer (Bud Fox) who comes to the “Big Apple” in search of fortune and recognition. He ultimately joins up with a seasoned corporate raider (Gordon Gekko) whose deal-making thrives on inside information. Tired of analyzing operating statistics (relative price-earnings ratios, divisional breakup values, credit coverages, etc.), Fox attempts to use some privileged information to his advantage. He teams up with Gekko to use the information to buy the airline where his father works.

Troubled by an FAA (Federal Aviation Administration) investigation that is blocking route expansion and the purchase of vital new equipment, Bluestar Airlines looked to remain stagnant if not go into the red. Bud inadvertently gets the insider information because his father is the shop steward of his union at the airline. With the aid of Gekko, he attempts to raid the company’s stock and become its president only to find that his mentor has plans to dissolve the airline.

The study of the gangster film gained notoriety with Colin McArthur’s Underworld USA (1972) in which he laid out the iconographic elements of the genre — the “patterns of visual imagery, of recurrent objects and figures in dynamic relationship.” Three categories were delineated to lay a foundation for an active, intelligible account of the genre. The first was the physical presence or denotative attributes, such as the dress of the characters. The second consisted of the “urban milieux” in which the fiction was played out. The last was the technology used by the characters, primarily, guns and cars.

Stone’s iconographics place his main characters as outsiders within the urban cathedrals of modern power. Its main characters are creatures of desire facing a world that denies them. They adhere to the strictest bourgeois codes, yet their business consists of an underground network of shady transactions outside the official economy. Their aggressions propel them towards the rational economy while their pasts repel them. From their lofty towers, they plot electronic raids on unsuspecting companies. Stone replaces the guns and cars of the traditional genre with spreadsheets and cellular telephones to expand the sphere of their influence or hostage others for greenmail.

The gangster character-type with its propensity towards dramatic action and individualistic profiteering has long been a favorite of in American popular film. Its aggressive, yet misguided personas fit well into tragic and moralistic tales which the emerging Hollywood studios were quick to exploit during the Great Depression. Warner Brothers, in particular, drew on new developments in sound and picture quality. It positioned these new identities in a contemporaneous social realism markedly different from fantasy films such as King Kong, and Dracula, which dominated the period.

The attraction of the early gangster, despite this villainy, was tied mainly to his position as an outsider. The populist criticism of liberal capitalism saw in the gangster genre a vehicle for politicizing the current problems of the time — alienation, greed, poverty, and unemployment. Criminality was seen as resulting from socioeconomic factors such as the Prohibition and the unequal distributions of wealth. Films such as The Public Enemy(1931), stressed the gangster’s working-class roots and markers such as unfashionable clothes and ghetto dialects. The Warner Brothers studio itself was identified with the Democratic New Deal, and its economic success left it relatively independent from the Morgan/Rockefeller banking empire.

Stone clearly figures his main characters in Wall Street from this early genre and its iconography. Gordon Gekko and Bud Fox both hail, quite energetically, from working-class conditions. Gecko’s father sold electrical supplies in Campsville, Arkansas, after the government foreclosed on the family farm. Carl returned nightly to a home in Queens after a day’s work fixing aircraft for the Bluestar airline. Like Stone’s award-winning film, Platoon, Charlie Sheen plays a “coming to age” character trying to reconcile his subjectivity among capitalism’s competing myths.

The film’s narrative acts out the tensions between two discourses that structure the acts of criminality but bring in a set of conflicting interpretations. On the one hand, it presents good sound capitalism, the kind Marx thought might lead to communism one day. Three supporting characters reinforce this discourse: Bud’s father, a union leader; Sir Lawrence Wildman, a reconverted raider; and Lou Mannheim, who works at the same brokerage firm. Lou, a potential mentor, cautions Bud, “You’re part of something here; the money we invest creates science, jobs, goods, and services.”

The other discourse is entrepreneurial greed — competition with no holds barred. Gekko, as anti-hero, was its main representation in the film, but it was also the dominant Wall Street coda. The securities inflation of the 1980s was one of the decade’s major media stories and a lasting legacy of the Reagan Era. The Dow Jones and Nikkei indexes were the smiling faces of the new age of electronic predatory capitalism. Share price aggregates broke one numerical milestone after another as the world turned its attention to the new liberal prosperity.

The “Masters of the Universe,” as Tom Wolfe called them in his book, Bonfire of the Vanities(1987), fascinated the American public. As a new breed of “robber barons’, they saw themselves as having the ability to re-energize American industry and drive out the bureaucratic corpocracy that had stagnated in the 1970s. Managerial capitalism was accused of letting American competitiveness slide in favor of its former World War II enemies and it needed to be broken up this new class of raiders.

One of the most celebrated and later reprimanded of these new money mandarins was Michael Milken. Milken was credited with developing the infamous “junk bond” market. These high-interest bonds for the less creditworthy companies attracted money from around the world. Insurance companies, Mutual funds, Savings and Loans, among others, were the first to purchase these high return notes. Junk bonds provided a quick but expensive way to raise large amounts of capital for buying vulnerable companies. Cable and satellite TV, fiber optics, and wireless industries used junk bonds for the communications revolution that would follow.

Unfortunately, the high costs of procuring financing, in many cases, made breaking up these companies the most profitable strategy for the raider. Assets such as buildings, equipment, and intellectual property were sold off for quick profits. T. Boone Pickens, a sort of real-life J. R. Ewing of the TV show Dallas, made US$107 million at one point from raiding big companies like the now extinct Gulf and Philips Petroleum.

To Bud Fox’s horror, he realizes that his mentor Gekko had planned all along to break up the airline company that employs his father and many friends. Bud’s enthusiasm to restructure the Bluestar airline and save it financially plays into the hands of the major gangster and sets the company up for the fall.

Stone’s myth and characterizations were contemporaneous with New York’s emergence as the world’s numispolis and the transition to a transnational system for arbitrage and the movement of electronic money. New York’s dominance had been complete with the first defeat of Germany in 1919, but it emerged even stronger with the financial destruction of the US government in the 1980s. The country’s burden was Wall Street’s bonanza. The city that needed a bailout in the seventies was soaking up the world’s cash reserves a year later. Packs of transnational Eurodollars, abandoning the dream of a newly developed Third World, returned to yuppiedom to feast on an unsuspecting corporate infrastructure. The IMF had put out the yellow light on Brazil, Venezuela, and the Philippines.

A national government may not go bankrupt, Walter Wriston proclaimed in the mid-seventies when bankers were searching out new markets for their coffers of petrodollars. However, they had unfathomable appetites for foreign currencies. As prospects for rich returns diminished, new calculative strategies, enriched by the computer and new software algorithms, took aim at corporate America.

While villainy is a stable in narrative structure, the moral space created by the text frequently situates the criminal character outside this traditional function. The gangster, as a product of the new urban civilization, confronted the contradictions of liberal capitalism with its promise of a classless, democratic society. The genre pitted desire against constraint. The gangster, amidst the legal and social conditions of the early thirties, violated the system of rules and bureaucracy in the name of tragic individualism.

The corporate raider became a new socio-economic caricature to which Stone has made his contribution by intertexting the gangster genre into his filmed critique of the contradictions of modern capitalism. The new gangster, represented by Gekko and Fox in Wall Street, is figured heavily by the sympathies Americans have for the criminal who fights the bureaucratic barriers to opportunity and advancement but who must ultimately take a tragic downfall in the name of justice.

I have followup post on Stone’s Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps (2010). He takes up the story of the 2007 financial crash and the resultant “Great Recession.”

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Anthony

Anthony J. Pennings, PhD has been on the NYU faculty since 2001 teaching digital media, information systems management, and global communications.

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    Professor and Associate Chair at State University of New York (SUNY) Korea. Recently taught at Hannam University in Daejeon, South Korea. Moved to Austin, Texas in August 2012 to join the Digital Media Management program at St. Edwards University. Spent the previous decade on the faculty at New York University teaching and researching information systems, media economics, and strategic communications.

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