25 Sep 2010

Wall Street 1: Murphy Never Sleeps

Economics 15 Comments

In preparation for Sunday’s viewing of Wall Street 2: Money Never Sleeps, I decided to watch the original. (Fortunately you can watch it instantly on Netflix.) This postponed by a day my usual catch-up on sleep, but it was worth it.

I’m ashamed to say that I don’t think I ever gave the movie a chance when I was much younger. Back then, I let the conservative op ed writers convince me that Oliver Stone was a nutjob who hated America and capitalism.

Well, I didn’t get that sense from the movie. (Maybe Stone has said some crazy things in interviews; I don’t know.) It’s true, Gordon Gekko is not portrayed as a hero, or even a flawed hero, but I don’t think Stone did a hatchet job on him. I mean, you don’t cast Michael Douglas as a character unless you sort of respect him.

By the same token, Stone didn’t do a hatchet job on George Bush in W. I think Stone set out to give an accurate account of how the heck somebody ends up making the decisions (in the White House) that horrified Stone.

(To see the contrast, Danny DeVito’s character in Other People’s Money wasn’t a patch on the shoulder blade of Gordon Gekko. Besides more obvious differences, their speeches to the shareholders were different. Gekko’s famous “greed is good” speech is actually mostly correct, and he rightly castigates the incompetent management. In contrast, I don’t remember DeVito even giving a semblance of an argument as to why the shareholders should sell to him, except “You’ll make a lot of money.”)

But enough of the praise. I have huge problems with a central part of the plot in the original Wall Street.

(1) First of all, why could Gordon Gekko lay off the union workers and gut the company? The union representatives specifically ask him if he will put all of his promises in writing, when they meet at Charlie Sheen’s place. This isn’t terrible–we could assume Gekko had his attorneys draft up something with a loophole that the salt-of-the-earth union people didn’t see coming. But then…

(2) If Gekko is planning to break up the company and raid the pension fund, why does he care when the union people come in and threaten to not concede to his requested wage cuts? He only needs their wage concessions if he’s planning on operating the airline, right? So if he’s really going to eliminate everybody’s job–as Charlie Sheen begs him not to do–then it doesn’t matter if the unions don’t go along with the original agreement. So why does their threat convince him to dump the stock?

Maybe I’m missing something, and there was supposed to be a transition period when Gekko winds down the company. But the investment bankers were making it sound as if the whole strategy was to sell off the assets and allow Gekko to retain the overfunded pension.

15 Responses to “Wall Street 1: Murphy Never Sleeps”

  1. Peter St. Onge says:

    I thought DeVito’s speech was MUCH better; the youtube’s about 6min, you judge:


    What I didn’t like about Wall Street was the insider-trading angle. Felt like egregious demonization. Other People’s Money, on the other hand, never mucked around with that – he was just a straight LBO and, incidentally, never went “straight” rather worked out a modus vivendi with the romantic lead.

    So, overall, I thought Other People’s was a much more sympathetic defense of ‘greed’.

  2. David R. Henderson says:

    Bob, I agree with Peter St. Onge. The economics of DeVito’s speech are impeccable. It’s true that if you want a hero, you wouldn’t cast DeVito. But ironically, that’s what makes his speech so good. You aren’t going to look at him for his looks and so you listen to his speech. He explains the economics of why this wire division is NEVER going to come back no matter what happens to the company. I’m going to stop writing here because I want to go on longer and I think I’ll blog about this today. 🙂

  3. bobmurphy says:

    OK you guys are right, DeVito’s speech was a lot better than I remembered it. However, the one thing that really bothered me was the “Who cares?” money line. He explicitly set them up to think it was them versus the workers, and that they should destroy the workers lives because they wanted money and because the workers hadn’t cared about them over the previous decade.

    So David, if you or I were on a radio show defending LBOs, we certainly wouldn’t start out by saying, “It’s true it helps shareholders and destroys workers lives, but you can’t get around that conflict between owners and labor. And I don’t think workers ever give money to management.”

    It’s true, DeVito a few minutes later mentions how they might expand jobs in the new places where they invest.

  4. Misesian says:

    Hey Bob,

    Not going to give you a spoiler on the movie. But pay close attention, to what Gekko says is the NEW BUBBLE. Here’s a hint: It’s an industry full of Government intervention. He mentions it rather quick…and nothing else is said. And notice what he does in the end with the money…Gekko obviously sees which way the wind is blowing…

  5. J Cortez says:

    I think Devito’s speech in Other People’s Money was better. The problem with it is that Michael Douglas’ Gekko is iconic for that time and whereas Devito’s Larry the Liquidator is meant to be comedic.

    I saw Wall Street 2 yesterday. It was ok. It was not as good as the first one, though. FYI, nobody read further if you care about minor spoilers**

    A link to Wall Street 2 script was posted on this website a few months back. The original script was better. I think they axed it because it was a bit more complicated in terms of finance. There was part of the story focused on hedging reinsurance as a way to screw the main bad guy in the movie. Instead of that they threw in a bunch of green energy stuff which I thought went off track. I guess that made it simpler for a general audience, but I thought it was kind of lame.

    Douglas’ character is far more devious and smarter in the original script as he is one of the major beneficiaries of bailout money. That would have been a great curveball in terms of movie drama, but instead they axed it, I have no idea why. Gekko also had better things to say about bubbles and money, but that didn’t make it into the final product.

    I really liked the Wall Street 1 because of the characters and dialogue, although admittedly, story-wise it could’ve been better. But Wall Street 2 kind of just lets me down.

    Still, I have one favorite Wall Street 2 quote. Gekko talking about prison: “They took a hundred, twenty two thousand, six hundred and forty hours from me for a goddamn victimless crime.

  6. ChrisK says:

    I just saw Wall Street: money never sleeps on Friday, as as someone who had really enjoyed the first one (despite its flaws and ‘message’) I was very excited for this one. A few comments below, quit reading if you haven’t seen it yet and don’t want to hear about it. Maybe this would be better to put up on the mises forum but I just want to get if off my chest.

    First, as “just a movie”
    1. I thought it was a C- or worse. It felt like they developed 4 different plot conflicts or points for about 15 minutes each but never really ran with one. Then all of a sudden the movie just ended and everything was somehow resolved.

    2. I felt like Stone or whoever was in charge of the camera stuff was like someone who just discovered the slide transition effects on powerpoint and felt that had to use every single one of them!!! The effect was cheesy and laughable; what was up with the one girl’s face going translucent when she was talking on the phone with Lebeouf? Then the face moved over his girlfriend? Then there was the “shrinking hole” effect when the party was over, were we watching a cartoon?

    3. Don’t even get me started on Charlie Sheen’s part – that was just pathetic.

    4. Was there some serious and blatant product placement or was it just me? Gekko: Would you like….a HEINEKEN?”

    5. I will say that Michael Douglas was in true form; however, LeBeouf seemed like a bit of a whiny pip squeek at times as well as a teenager that is just trying so hard to get back with his girlfriend “I miss you like crazy babe…..”

    OK, now as the sequel to “Wall Street” and an analysis on the economics:
    1. I got really excited during Gekko’s speech when he started to hint at some real Austrian points “…the Fed lowered rates to 1%….” etc. Then, terribly disappointed when he boiled all evils down to….yup….SPECULATORS! (how original)

    2. The opening felt fresh and what I expected from a modern day sequel with LeBeouf strolling through the trading floor, ducking under phone lines etc. I thought this was fun and really gave these prop shops a hollywood moment. Unfortunately it became old hat quickly and it seemed like they tried to do the “camera behind the computer screen” too much.

    3. Not sure what I think about “the Fed” scene yet, could be a close depiction of what went on there with the decisions to bail out? I thought they tried to re-create the old guy from the first movie (the value investor who always reminds people about the great companies like Hilton and IBM) with the old guy in this movie. Unfortunately his whistling just came out as a comic relief instead of something cool. (perhaps my mood was already gone by this point in the movie)

    4. In general, it seemed like whoever wrote this tried to string in as many financial headlines and concepts without really focusing on one to drive the movie. I personally thought they might have had something if they stuck to moral hazard. I walked away feeling like I just re-watched everything on CNBC from the last two years.

    5. Finally, the whole business aspect part of the plot line was weak. If someone really was close to developing nuclear fusion power, an investment bank wouldn’t sabotage them because they had a lot of money in oil. Fusion would be one of the single most important discoveries in our world and not only be a boon for the entire planet but would easily make its investors the richest in the world.

    6. There is a line in the movie where LeBeouf is arguing with his girlfriend about the money that he wants to use to invest in the clean power and she retorts back with “I thought you wanted to help the world, now you are sounding like a Wall Street man…” or something to that effect (only seen it once). This about sums up Hollywood’s surface knowledge and opinions about Capitalism; in their mind there couldn’t possibly be a way for someone to serve the needs of others and (gasp) make money at the same time!!!

  7. Yogi says:

    Dude, the mainstream is coming round to “our” idea of structural unemployment to some degree. Even liberals are saying these things now.

    Krugman is alarmed and has waded waist deep into the debate, made some half-baked arguments and retreated. (Read today’s column)

    Shouldn’t Austians put aside their hatred of diagrams and equations for the time being and try to get something published in mainstream journals ?

  8. fundamentalist says:

    I think it’s possible to over-analyze movies. As a recent reviewer of “Never Sleeps” writes, it pretty incoherent. The media elite rarely make well reasoned arguments, but that’s not the point. They don’t want people to think, but to feel, to feel disgust at capitalists. Socialism is all about feeling, not thinking.

    As for Stone’s W film, that was the point there, too. I agree. It was no hatchet job looked at rationally and compared to history. But that wasn’t the point. The point was to portray him as stupid. In the socialist world, only socialists are intelligent. By definition, everyone else is stupid. That has been the story line since Saint-Simon. It’s OK to say anything bad about socialists you want as long as you don’t suggest they’re stupid. And you can say anything good you want about capitalists as long as you portray them as stupid. Intelligence (with good intentions) is the only attribute socialists care about.

    • bobmurphy says:

      Did Stone portray Gordon Gekko as stupid?

      • fundamentalist says:

        I generalized too much. Actually, I haven’t seen either Wall Street movie. I did see W. I would guess that he didn’t portray Gekko as stupid, but as greedy. Capitalists are always greedy and not-so-socialist polticians, like Bush, and their followers are always stupid. All guys like Stone want to accomplish is to stir up feelings of disgust among socialists for the greed of capitalists and the stupidity of conservatives.

      • fundamentalist says:

        Personally, I consider Democrats to be socialist and Republicans to be socialist-lite.

  9. Silas Barta says:

    Did anyone ever resolve the issue of whether there were differences betwee the Pyramids and the Empire State Building other than the presence of unions among the labor for the latter?

  10. Josh Gonzales says:

    I feel like the critiques of the second Wall Street as sophomoric are fairly accurate. I am a fairly “passive” movie goer, and maybe I went into this one on the defense, but I remember specifically looking around at the half dozen other people in the theater (on the premier Friday) and mouthing, really. Two main problems (If you have gotten this far down the page and have not seen the movie yet it is your fault):

    1. The second fed scene was horrendous. As a piece in this story line it was out of place. I knew it was supposed to be there because it was a representation of what actually happened, but it didn’t fit. Then the Hank Paulson look-alike yells something like “C’mon you guys.” Is that the best that God’s gift to the movie industry, Oliver Stone, can come up with for one of the most pivotal moments of the last 5 years.

    2. My second point is that the government is awarded zero blame for any of the financial mess. In fact, to the average film-goer the government plays two roles in this movie. Powerless mediator in the New York Fed “situation” room, and paternal investigator in the scene where Josh Brolin is in the Senators office. Leaving the viewer with two simple conclusions. The government tried to step in once the ship started to sink, the damage had already been done, no one could help. Whomever was at fault, the government will discover what exactly transpired, punish those who did wrong, and enact regulation that will totally prevent anything like this from ever happening again, ever.

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