Every so often, you get a window into the past – and realize that it offered you a picture of the future. Only you didn’t realize it at the time.
My little epiphany happened a couple of weeks ago, when I noticed signs at my local train station – I live in Ossining, NY – indicating that a movie was filming there. It didn’t take long to figure out that the “WS2” on the signs meant “Wall Street 2.” That sent me to my local video store – the only one left in town – to rent their scuffed-up VHS copy of the 1987 film, which I hadn’t watched since it first came out. Which showed me that Oliver Stone’s film essentially foretold the 2008 near-collapse of the economy.
Watching “Wall Street” offered a fascinating look at the end of the Reagan years, those go-go ’80s I think of as the Greed Decade (and not just because of Michael Douglas’ famous line in “Wall Street”). The now-discredited theory of trickle-down economics was still in full bloom, though by the time “Wall Street” reached theaters at the end of 1987, the markets had been through an October crash that shocked everyone (though apparently not enough to learn from it).
And here came Oliver Stone with “Wall Street” and his character, Gordon Gekko, the hair-gelled, power-tie-wearing financial carnivore, played to cocky perfection by Douglas (who won his acting Oscar for the role). In his crucial speech near the end of the film, when protégé Bud Fox (Charlie Sheen) starts to get cold feet, Gekko tells him:
“The richest 1 percent of this country owns half our country’s wealth, five trillion dollars. One-third of that comes from hard work; two thirds comes from inheritance, interest on interest accumulating to widows and idiot sons and what I do: stock and real-estate speculation. It’s bullshit. You got 90 percent of the American public out there with little or no net worth. I create nothing. I own. We make the rules, pal. The news, war, peace, famine, upheaval, the price per paper clip. We pick that rabbit out of the hat while everybody sits out there wondering how the hell we did it. Now you’re not naive enough to think we’re living in a democracy, are you buddy? It’s the free market. And you’re a part of it.”
It’s the same message that Michael Moore is offering in his film, “Capitalism: A Love Story,” except Moore is bemoaning, not celebrating, these ideas.
That speech was overlooked at the time because people were so enamored of the more sound-bite-friendly line, “Greed, for lack of a better word, is good.” As Douglas was prepping for “Wall Street 2,” he told interviewers that financial types regularly come up to him and tell him that his famous line inspired them to become corporate assholes like Gekko – thus missing the point of the film.
But it’s that other speech that nails it. Gekko delivers it to calm Bud, who’s angry at Gekko for dismantling an airline whose sale Bud engineered in order to save it. It’s all there – all the points that Moore makes: that our economy has become consumed with itself, with financial services and their assorted sordid byproducts. Stone was telling the future – and, as I recall, he was castigated at the time for being simplistic and alarmist.
Similarly, the ongoing implosion of the news media – the sensationalizing of news as infotainment on TV, while print media crumble in a heap – was being foretold in James L. Brooks’ “Broadcast News,” released within a few weeks of “Wall Street.”
Essentially a love triangle whose subtext was the struggle between style and substance, “Broadcast News” was built around the story of a network news producer named Jane Craig (Holly Hunter). She admired her colleague Aaron Altman (Albert Brooks) as a writer and reporter – but she lusted after hunky Tom Grunick (William Hurt), whose only skills were a smooth delivery and handsomeness.
Early in the film, Jane gives a speech to a convention of local broadcasters, warning them, “Our profession is in danger from the star system.” Her audience talks, reads papers and generally ignores her. If they’d had cell phones in 1987, they’d have been texting on them and checking e-mail.
They walk out on her, until she shows footage from Japan of an amazing domino feat – one of those elaborate Guinness Book efforts that goes on for minutes – as an example of what’s wrong with the networks. Her message – that this footage ran on all three networks, which ignored a major arms-treaty story the same day – is lost in the cheers and applause from the audience at the eye-candy on the screen.
Noting their reaction, she says, “I like fun, too – but it’s not news.”
“There’s a recklessness in the air,” someone says at one point, as rumors of layoffs circulate in the network newsroom. At another point, filming guerrillas in the jungle during a firefight, Aaron says to Jane, “I can’t believe I just risked my life for a network that tests my face with focus groups.” At the end of the film, the news division is decimated by firings.
This was 1987, when the biggest threat to TV seemed to be the influence of “Entertainment Tonight.” Twenty-plus years later, the major news organizations have all been co-opted by the entertainment divisions of those networks, focused on stories that will draw ratings, rather than news that people need to know. Forced to compete with syndicated and cable pseudo-news, faux-reality in reality programming, the cable network explosion and, of course, the Internet, TV news long ago gave up the ghost.
Newspapers and magazines, meanwhile, also gave up most pretense of maintaining a public trust. Having sold their souls to Wall Street, they live and die according to share price – and the massive layoffs in the print media have produced predictable results: watered-down coverage that mostly relies on wire services for national and international news, along with a grassroots focus on local news that might better be described as crabgrass-roots.
Both “Wall Street” and “Broadcast News” came out at the end of 1987, 22 years ago. Was there something in the water back then? Who knows?
I don’t think either Brooks or Stone regard themselves as Hollywood’s answer to Nostradamus. But there was a moment there when they gave us a glimpse of the future – if you were just paying attention.