“Are you a bee? Do you like to sting people?” a handsome banking executive in a merlot-colored suit growls to his protégé. It is early afternoon in the third-floor offices of a midtown skyscraper, the News Corporation headquarters, and select middle-aged men are watching an advanced screening of Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps, the Oliver Stone sequel that comes out next week. “It’s fatal, Mr. Moore,” Josh Brolin, the head of a vampire squid investment bank called Churchill Schwartz, continues, eying Shia LaBeouf, “not knowing what you’re doing.”
What the second Wall Street wants to do, to the surprise of moviegoers expecting a rollicking pinstriped adventure, is tell the sludgy story of the financial crisis. But it doesn’t know how. Oliver Stone’s opus is a strangely fictionalized version of the death of Bear Stearns and Lehman Brothers, but also the rise of short sellers and Goldman Sachs. That makes it, two years after the climax of the subprime debacle, the first big pop-culture meditation on Lloyd Blankfein, Jamie Dimon and Ace Greenberg, with some Steve Eisman, Maria Bartiromo and Matt Taibbi thrown in, too. Figuring out what is supposed to be what, and who is really who, should be one of the fall’s great parlor games.
But the real surprise is that the Oliver Stone film, as it’s called on the beautiful poster, is gentle and forgiving. Greed is bad, and then–consider this a spoiler alert–it isn’t. Our heroes are Shia LaBeouf’s trader, Jake Moore, more or less a conniving liar, and Michael Douglas’ Gordon Gekko, introduced as a sage, revealed to be a cackling supervillain, and then given a chance to make good at midnight. The movie doesn’t seem to mind that the men win because of theft, irresponsibility, avarice and old-fashioned treachery.
The new Wall Street is a love song to 21st-century traders, disguised as a diatribe.
“WE DIDN’T MAKE it too complex,” Oliver Stone said last week, during an interview at noon on Rosh Hashanah. “It’s just so fucking difficult.” But there are a lot of details packed into the film that ring true. In its best speech, Gekko warns a college audience about the upcoming mortgage collapse. “You don’t know it yet, but you’re the NINJA generation–no income, no job, no assets,” he says, using the nickname for the subprime loans that brokers pushed on unemployed homeowners, which became securities that were traded back and forth.
“Like cancer, it’s a disease, and we have to fight back,” he says, growing more furious when he describes how his bartender bought three houses he couldn’t afford. That’s a reference to Steve Eisman, one hedge fund manager who railed against the subprime mortgage bubble, and who realized that his nanny had bought up five townhouses in Queens. (His housekeeper was even going to buy a townhouse with an adjustable rate mortgage and a low down payment, until he convinced her otherwise.)
The film’s smart connections to the real-life story of the bubble are as subtle as the high-thread Bowery Hotel sheets that Jake wakes up in when we meet him, nuzzled by Carey Mulligan’s Winnie, his girlfriend and Gekko’s estranged daughter. But there are bigger links. “We did have scenes with AIG, by the way,” Mr. Stone said. “We had the chairman, [Maurice] Greenberg, but I ended up cutting it out because, frankly, it was too complex for the average viewer.”
Others made it in. Keller-Zabel, the doomed firm Jake works for, is Bear Stearns, complete with a “bald guy wearing a bow tie,” as Bear chairman Ace Greenberg once called himself, at the helm. It’s Frank Langella’s kindly Lew Zabel, a father figure to Jake, who gets a warm kiss on his pate after awarding him an early million-dollar bonus. There’s even a reference to the resentment that lingered on Wall Street ten years after Bear Stearns refused to participate in the 1998 bailout of the hedge fund Long-Term Capital Management.
Bear ended up needing the kind of help it had refused to give, which, of course, is Zabel’s fate, too. “Two bucks? Jesus, you’re out of your mind,” he spits when Churchill Schwartz’s Brolin makes an offer to save the firm, the same as JPMorgan’s bid for Bear Stearns. The sum goes up after haggling, which is what happened in 2008, sort of, although reality was more sinister. JPMorgan chief Jamie Dimon actually wanted to pay more so that Bear Stearns’ shareholders wouldn’t get in the way, but Treasury Secretary Hank Paulson reportedly asked him to keep the price low, so the government-backed deal wouldn’t look like a bailout.
Indeed, Mr. Brolin looks like Mr. Dimon, only without the gray hair. But Churchill Schwartz doesn’t look like JPMorgan for long. By the time we see a black helicopter with its CS logo, just a line of paint away from GS, the firm has morphed into the great Goldman. “Talk about an evil empire,” one character sighs. In the interview last week, Mr. Stone even claimed that Eliot Spitzer was the one who told him that Goldman Sachs was betting against the housing market at the same time it was creating mortgage deals. “This was before it made the news!” he said. “That woke me up, and I said, ‘My God, that’s some story.’”
By the finale, there isn’t any doubt about the firm’s inspiration. “The first thing you need to know about Churchill Schwartz is that it’s everywhere,” the opening line of a bombshell exposé posted to Winnie’s Web site says. Her site is called Frozen Truth, which will be a boon to the real-life Canadian named Apollo Lemmon who writes a blog with that name. But her article, of course, is Matt Taibbi’s Rolling Stone classic, which begins, “The first thing you need to know about Goldman Sachs is that it’s everywhere.”
“THE ARTICLE CAME out after the movie was shot,” Mr. Stone protested. “Come on! Please.” In fact, he’s been strange about most of the film’s inspirations. Telling The Hollywood Reporter about one bank they shot in, he said it “gave us the right feeling that we needed for Goldman–I don’t want to say Goldman, I want to say ‘from The Bank’ in the film.” Mr. LaBeouf is less self-conscious. “I was able to get into the Goldman Sachs office, which is like the Illuminati. Nobody gets to go in there,” he recently bragged on camera. “Basically the trade-off was you get me in there, I’ll introduce you to Gekko.”
Asked in May by Reuters whether the material would be a lightening rod, Mr. Stone sidestepped the question by saying the film was really based on the “solid relationships” between the characters. “We didn’t make it about 2008, that was background for me,” he said last week. “And it is a serious background, but it’s not the movie. It could have been done in another era.”
It’s not that he’s afraid of a lawsuit: At a lunch that The Times wrote about recently, the filmmaker even tried to say there was “a little bit” of Robert Rubin, the former Citigroup chairman, in Brolin’s executive.
So is Lew Zabel Ace Greenberg? “I would say he’s a combination of tough, hardened Jewish traders who have been in Wall Street over the years,” Mr. Stone said last week. Is the shot of the Lipstick Building outside of Zabel’s headquarters a nod to Madoff, who ran his scheme there? “It was a happy coincidence,” he said. Does Mr. Brolin’s banker resemble Jamie Dimon in the first half of the film? “Don’t do that to me! You can say there’s an archetype of handsome, slick and relatively unscathed by time,” Mr. Stone said.
Maybe there’s so much slipperiness because his movie’s mixed message about its characters and their dishonesty is not what its director would want to say about the real people behind the financial crisis. The sweet Zabel turns out to be psychotically negligent; Gekko gets evil not long after his inspiring speech; and even his daughter is hiding something awfully large. One character complains that CNBC’s stars sell fear and panic, but a gaggle of them get cameos. And it’s our young hero who spreads a false rumor through a network of short sellers (which earns him a great new job), lies to his fiancé, scares her into doing something awful with Swiss money and is even slightly dishonest when he comes clean at the end.
Even Jake’s abiding passion for green technology investments can’t help but seem suspect by the end. “I’m doing it to make money,” the playboy Vincent Tchenguiz once told a reporter who asked about the conflict between his environmental investments and six SUVs. “The numbers are colossal.” The producers talked to him for inspiration.
TWO YEARS AFTER the death of Lehman, and 30 months since Bear’s demise, we’ve had a few great books about the crisis, a nine-volume autopsy of Lehman from its bankruptcy court, a half-billion-dollar Goldman fine with no admission of guilt, Congressional hearings featuring calm non-apologies and now a huge Hollywood film. What we don’t have is a way to talk seriously or consistently about the people and companies responsible for the worst financial collapse in a century.
The best the second Wall Street does is present powerful people who are, mostly, good but bad. “That’s what it’s about,” Mr. Stone said. “How money makes you compromised these days. How money taints all our behavior.”
If money corrupts, then maybe it’s unfair to expect too much from a $70 million Hollywood thriller that features Bvlgari rings (Jake wants to know about the extra-special private Bvlgari collection in the back); the original Wall Street‘s Charlie Sheen, who had his own makeup artist on set for his brief cameo; and a beer advertisement. “Heineken?” Gekko asks his future son-in-law at a Shun Lee dinner. “Yeah,” he answers, before we got a shot of him with the bottle, like Mike Myers jokingly smiling with a Pepsi can in Wayne’s World.
They’re at Shun Lee for a dinner with Winnie, who, after her father interrupts their conversation to sweet-talk Vanity Fair’s Graydon Carter, gets up and leaves. She’s back by the end of the film, where the credits roll over a happy outdoor party for a 1-year-old, featuring a live band. “Guys like that, having birthday parties,” Mr. Stone told The Times in the Four Seasons, nodding at Steve Schwarzman, “it’s not my deal.”