The Film That May Rehabilitate Wall Street

There are plenty of villains in Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps, but good has a fighting chance against evil.

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Ever meet a nice Wall Street banker?

Probably not. Most people have never met a Wall Street banker at all, since they tend not to hang out at the fast-food joints and bowling alleys where mere mortals congregate. But there's certainly a public image of the typical financial mogul: Polished, cocksure, and slick, with secret access to a money vacuum that's somehow connected to every savings account in America. Sort of like a legal Mafiosi. Only worse.

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Shia LaBoeuf is out to change that image. In Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps, LaBoeuf is a likeable young banker named Jake Moore who's in it for the money, but for something else as well. He's cocky and manipulative, but also an idealistic dreamer trying to help bankroll a googly-eyed green-energy firm. He's devoted enough to his graybeard mentor to risk the wrath of Wall Street while standing up for the old man's honor. He declines the no-name sex routinely on offer to Manhattan cuff-linkers, staying loyal to his earthy girlfriend, Winnie, played by Carey Mulligan. And he finds redeeming qualities in this fictional Wall Street's most famous villain, Gordon Gekko.

Gekko, of course, is the personification of Michael Milken, Ivan Boesky, and a cast of scoundrels from the 1980s, when insider trading and rigged deals were the fashionable crimes. When we last heard from Gekko, played with oily aplomb by Michael Douglas in the original 1987 film Wall Street, the fictional legend of high finance was about to be prosecuted for some illegal dealings captured on a hidden tape recorder. The sequel took 23 years to make, no doubt, because nobody ever imagined a sequel. Had the real Wall Street not eclipsed its own greedy history over the last few years, Gordon Gekko would have remained a creature of the '80s.

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But Wall Street outdid itself, as we know, so in the best capitalist tradition, Hollywood has tried to wring a bit more mileage out of the Gekko franchise. And Michael Douglas makes us wish there were more Gordon Gekkos. As Money Never Sleeps opens in early 2008, Gekko has spent most of the '90s in prison, written a popular book about his downfall and redemption, and nursed a nasty grudge against his estranged daughter, Winnie, who happens to be Jake Moore's girlfriend. Gekko's time in the slammer—"122,00 hours of my life," as he growls at one point in the film—has made him world-weary, more cynical than ever, and wise enough to recognize his own pathologies. He's an honest villain, even funny sometimes, not the type of smarmy creep we've seen testifying before Congress lately, insisting that his firm's shorts and hedges served the betterment of humanity.

In Gekko's first meaningful scene, he provides an entertaining summary of the real financial crisis that was many years in the making and finally erupted in 2008. "You're all fu--ed," Gekko says to an auditorium filled with Fordham University students, explaining that they're "NINJAs:" People with no income, no jobs, and no assets. In the heady days of the housing boom, shady lenders issued "NINJA loans" to borrowers who never should have gotten them, helping fuel the foreclosure boom we're in now. Back then, the term was typically applied to subprime borrowers, not to the cream of future generations—but given the prospects for college grads these days, Gekko's interpretation might be right.

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With the arch wisdom of a guy who knows a crime when he sees one, Gekko details many of the factors that helped create the real Wall Street crisis, including overleveraged banks with too much debt, a compliant government that helped foster the housing bubble, and greedy consumers who abandoned common sense and milked their homes for equity loans used to purchase tons of stuff they couldn't afford. America has fallen so far since the 1980s that Gordon Gekko has become the nation's conscience.

The history lesson goes on for awhile, with an insightful and mostly accurate rendering of what happened on Wall Street in 2008. Since it fictionalizes the collapse of Wall Street, we don't see Bear Stearns and Lehman Brothers failing; instead the drama involves "Keller Zabel," a composite of the two that gets caught with way too much debt, becomes a target of ruthless short sellers, and runs out of cash in the course of a week.

Those who were there might quibble with a few details, like a dig on hedge funds, which weren't really the problem; many hedge funds accurately saw the gaping holes in Bear and Lehman and Merrill Lynch, and when the pain came they either took their losses without bailouts or shut down with little harm to the greater economy. Still, Money Never Sleeps is a serviceable dramatization of what really happened from March to October 2008. There are tense meetings at the New York Federal Reserve, presided over by a towering, bald fellow representing Hank Paulson, Treasury Secretary at the time. One of the stronger Wall Street firms, which steps in to buy the remnants of Keller Zabel with government support, is an amalgam of JPMorgan Chase and Goldman Sachs. Some of the bankers in the meetings fear that if the government doesn't intervene, "it's the end"—a replay of the Great Depression. From the accounts we have, those really are the types of discussions that went on inside the room.

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For its accuracy, Money Never Sleeps will test how much the average viewer really wants to know about Wall Street's darkest hour. There are obligatory discussions of credit-default swaps, collateralized debt obligations, moral hazard, and whether bailing out banks amounts to socialism: Essential chapters in a definitive account of the crisis, perhaps, but not exactly gripping theater. Acted scenes are interspersed with real news footage from the crisis, with commentators like Nouriel Roubini and Warren Buffett telling America how terrible it really is. Haven't we seen this movie before?

The subplot—or is it the main plot?—finally gets going, as the earnest, whipsmart LaBoeuf begins to probe chicanery among Wall Street's high and mighty, under the guiding hand of Gekko, his girlfriend's father, who LaBeouf mistakes for a father figure. Whoops. Endearing he may be, if you're helping him get what he wants, but Gordon Gekko has not gone soft. The essential quest of the film, in fact, is a search for Gekko's soul.

The journey takes us to the back rooms of finance in New York, Switzerland, and London, with LaBoeuf looking for a way to take down Bretton James, a titanic Wall Street CEO played by Josh Brolin who's a cross between Jamie Dimon of JPMorgan Chase and Lloyd Blankfein of Goldman Sachs. Except he's not as smart as either, leaving some muddy tracks that the determined Jake Moore is able to track with surprising ease. Oh well. It's more satisfying than anything that has happened in the real probes of Wall Street, so far.

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Gekko, of course, comes roaring back, setting up a hedge fund in London, since he's presumably banned from the U.S. markets, and tossing sneering one-liners that nicely encapsulate the mess that the real Wall Street created. "I'm small-time compared to these crooks," he sagely observes. In the end, the venal Gekko seems almost avuncular compared to the real lords of finance, especially as the pesky Jake Moore tries to steer him back toward the forces of light. Harry Potter it ain't, but if you suspend disbelief you might think for a moment that there are a few good guys on Wall Street after all, and that maybe they have a fighting chance. Then you remember: It's only a movie.