Hanging Out with Oliver Stone, Looking for Answers
If Karl Marx was still living, I think he would probably be invited to ring the opening bell at the New York Stock Exchange or at NASDAQ. Or, more likely, the Hong Kong or Shanghai stock markets. And why not? His penetrating analysis of capitalism’s tendency to self-destruct might well have inspired some Wall Street traders to anticipate the financial crisis of the past two years. Dialectical materialisms certainly did not hinder Russia and China from creating huge capitalist corporations.
On Monday, September 20, the film director Oliver Stone strode into NASDAQ’s site in the heart of Times Square to ring the opening bell. He had in tow three performers – Shia LaBeouf, Josh Brolin and Carey Mulligan – from his soon-to-be-released film, Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps, a sequel to the Wall Street film he brought out 23 years ago. Not along for the ride, because of a bout with throat cancer, was Michael Douglas, who starred in both films, playing the “greed is good” investment banker Gordon Gekko. That night, Stone showed up with Brolin and Mulligan at a pre-opening party held at Cipriano 42 and attended by the likes of Spike Lee, Tayna Lewis Lee and the nation’s richest man, Warren Buffet, who has a cameo part in the movie. Celebrities at work.
You might wonder why NASDAQ leaders would allow their podium to be used to promote a film whose content was unknown to them. Many people thought that Stone would level a severe indictment of Wall Street for igniting the financial crisis. But that didn’t happen. Yes, there is obviously skullduggery going on but it’s mostly conducted off screen so that viewers never have a chance to understand how Wall Street makes its money. Stone has no explanations for us on how the crisis seized up the economy. “Money never sleeps” is just a cliché.
Three weeks before the movie opened Stone had lunch at the Grill Room of the Four Seasons with Andrew Ross Sorkin, the New York Times columnist who wrote the blow-by-blow account of how the crisis came down in his book, Too Big to Fail. Sorkin reported in his column that Stone looked around the room and commented, “You know half the people in this place could be prosecuted.” This was juicy lunchtime conversation, but it never surfaces in Stone’s movie. If it had, it might have concerned Rupert Murdoch, whose company, Twentieth-Century Fox, distributed Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps.
Anyway, the film finally opened on Friday, September 24, at theaters across the country, to mixed reviews. It grossed $19 million at the box office that weekend. Okay, but certainly not earth-shaking.
More than 50 books dealing with the financial crisis have been published in the past two years – and they are still coming down the pike. Not all of them are as clueless as Oliver Stone’s movie but Americans, for the most part, seem to have reached no consensus on why it happened or, most important, what should be done about it now. I was amused to see the venerable British weekly, The Economist, opine the other day that it might be a good idea for President Obama to act nicer to the business community. It appears that business people are unhappy about the way the President disparages them. The Economist said:
No sane leader of a country would want business people to think that he was against them, especially at time when confidence is essential for the recovery.
Perhaps the Brits need to be reminded of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s first inaugural address, when he said:
…rulers of the exchange of man’s goods have failed through their own stubbornness and their own incompetence, have admitted their own failure and have abdicated. Practices of the unscrupulous money changers stand indicted in the court of public opinion, rejected by the hearts and minds of men.
And four years later, in his second inaugural, FDR said:
We have always known that heedless self-interest was bad morals; we know now that it is bad economics. Out of the collapse of a prosperity whose builders boasted their practicality has come the conviction that in the long run economic morality pays.
Sounds like a good movie.