You wouldn't expect Wall Street to age all that well. Oliver Stone's 1987 classic dates itself hard, with slicked back hair, suspenders, and 30-year-old slang aplenty. It's a snapshot of a very specific time and place, and yet in 2017 it suddenly feels like a pointed commentary on Trumpian privilege and corruption.
Played by a fresh-faced Charlie Sheen, Bud Fox is an up-and-coming stockbroker in New York. He's determined to make it big and convinces the legendary Wall Street tycoon Gordon Gekko (Michael Douglas) to take him under his wing. But the only way to work with Gekko, Bud quickly realizes, is to cheat through insider trading and corporate espionage. Bud profits enormously, and gladly adopts the douchey stockbroker lifestyle, complete with smoke-filled private clubs and an insufferable tendency to quote Sun Tzu's The Art of War.
But it's all for nothing. Bud eventually dons a wire for the feds, and he and Gekko both go to jail, having ripped off countless people who trusted that their money was in good hands.
In a lot of ways, the movie fails. At least if you're looking at its surface-level message, it's not a particularly convincing condemnation of greed, since the greedy assholes live the kinds of cushy lives we're all told we should aspire to. It's not altogether surprising that the film inspired a generation of filmgoers to seek their fortunes on Wall Street, enamoured of the romantic portrayal of being a piece of shit.
Even Bud's about-face comes after he's been arrested—he sells out his mentor for an easier ride through the justice system. He's relieved to clear his conscience, having quibbled half-heartedly with the ethics of it all throughout the film, but it's a pretty thin bit of eleventh-hour redemption. Ultimately, accountability didn't come from within.
That failure is exactly what makes the movie resonate today. Call me cynical, but we're not going to get anywhere waiting for the people in power to locate their own estranged humanity.
In that way, the film captures the essence of our current situation perfectly. People with too much money and influence get to both make and break the rules. Of course today's viewers are probably less taken in by the overt sleaziness of both Bud and Gekko. And that's what makes the film so much fun to watch now. It's not a great film by any stretch, but it's oddly satisfying. It's obvious that we're watching petulant boys having a pissing contest while spending other people's money. Just like it's obvious to some (if not most) that Donald Trump is a silver-spoon buffoon who got away with the biggest con job in modern history.
The reality of Trump's failures, and the effects on America and the world, make it hard to objectively appreciate the colossal mess of it all—the president tweeting insults and criticizing a US territory during a major crisis might actually be funny if it weren't so deeply disturbing. Wall Street provides a kind of release through distance. Today, it doesn't feel like it's about anything in particular, so it's a perfect parable for a reality that's often hard to believe, and even harder to accept.
One of the biggest differences between Gekko and Trump is that you get a real sense that Gekko worked hard to reach a point where he could abuse his position. But the parallels are still there otherwise. "America has become a second rate power," Gekko tells a room full of rich suckers, before presenting himself as the only hope to raise the nation up again. The man who revels in his own greed is clearly the best-suited to Make America Great Again.
Trump's dumb luck and hand-me-down authority haven't stopped him from similarly abusing his position. This is the man who fired the FBI director who was investigating him, after all. His many conflicts of interest have been a point of contention since before his inauguration, and he seems unbothered by his advisors using private email accounts to conduct White House business—a crime so heinous he called for Hillary Clinton to be jailed for it. Tom Price, who resigned as secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services after his obviously inappropriate use of private jets, was already under investigation for insider trading. But Trump took some of the pressure off of Price by firing Preet Bharara, the US Attorney who was overseeing the investigation. The list of suspicious activity seemingly never ends.
While Stone's commentary on Trump is entirely accidental, he has tackled current events more directly in recent years, with a notable focus on timeliness. He gave George W. Bush the biopic treatment before Obama even entered the oval office. He released Snowden a year ago, while the infamous NSA whistleblower remains in exile. And he even took on Trump himself, indirectly, in his most recent The Putin Interviews on Showtime, a series of intimate tête à têtes with the Russian leader.
The results in all three cases were not particularly inspired. Stone is too blunt for that. He offers very little insight in his biopics, and comes off politically neutral, which has its own insidious political implications. In the interviews, he fawns over Putin, playing a painfully gentle game of journalistic softball to offer a portrait of the man in his own words, for whatever that's worth.
His 2010 sequel to Wall Street, Money Never Sleeps, even forced a narrative link to the financial crisis just two years after the fact. The film received mixed reviews and isn't particularly worth watching. When Stone eventually makes a Trump movie, as I'm sure he will, I can only imagine a miss by a wide margin, making the original Wall Street all the more precious (and prescient).
It's worth noting that Money Never Sleeps is guilty of something much worse than an overly eager bid at timely relevance though. What it really gets wrong is the ageing Gekko, who finally learns his lesson. After briefly going back to his old ways when he gets out of prison, Gekko has a Scrooge-like epiphany, realizing that family is more important than blah, blah, blah.
Maybe we can chalk it up to a naïve, Obama-era sense of hope on Stone's part, but Gekko's personal growth falls flat. Gekko doesn't grow, or at least he shouldn't. He only consumes. Until you stop him, that is.
That's the lesson of Wall Street, the lesson we need to look so far back for. The game is rigged, and it's always been rigged. But every now and then, someone like Gekko or Trump comes in and tests even those very loose limits that we do have in place. We can either wait endlessly for him to learn restraint on his own, or we can hold him to account.
Follow Frederick Blichert on Twitter.