From the Masters at the Movies column of the April 2011 issue of Perspectives on History
Masters at the Movies, Take 17: Joyce Appleby on Oliver Stone's Wall Street Films
Robert Brent Toplin, April 2011
In the following article (the 17th in the series), Joyce Appleby compares and contrasts Oliver Stone’s two movies about Wall Street—the 1987 production about an aggressive corporate raider (starring Michael Douglas as the protagonist, Gordon Gekko) and the 2010 film, in which Gekko returns to the Street and warns about an imminent crash.
When Stone released Wall Street in December, 1987, Americans were not as frustrated about the economy as they are today. Even though the stock market had suddenly dropped in October of that year, markets had been climbing for years, and the Dow Jones Industrial Average had already recovered substantially by the time Stone’s movie reached neighborhood theaters. The public was not broadly critical of the Street at the time. Lots of Americans were, in fact, enthusiastically investing in stocks.
Today, many Americans are angry about Wall Street. They do not believe the recent problems with finance are due to the violations of a few villainous Gordon Gekkos. The entire system appears to be corrupted by nefarious practices. Stone endorses this broader vision. Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps treats the financial crisis as a systemic problem.
Can feature films entertain audiences and also instruct them about the world of high finance? In this intriguing analysis Appleby assesses the director’s efforts to mix drama and history.
Joyce Appleby is a professor emerita at UCLA where she taught history for 20 years. A historian of early America, she also worked on the history of England and France in the early modern era. Her abiding interest has been in analyzing the changing social theories about human nature, politics, and economic development that accompanied the modern transformation of Europe and America.
She was the president of the American Historical Association, the Organization of American Historians, and the Society for Historians of the Early American Republic. She was a founder of the History News Service, an informal syndicate of professional historians who write newspaper op-ed essays that put contemporary issues in their historical context. Her recent publications are Inheriting the Revolution: The First Generation of Americans (2000); Thomas Jefferson (2003); A Restless Past: History and the American Public (2004); and The Relentless Revolution: A History of Capitalism (2010).
The “Masters at the Movies” series features a variety of articles about film crafted by some of the most accomplished teachers and scholars in the profession. Most of the authors are familiar to readers principally in connection with their general contributions to scholarship rather than because of their specific work on film. Our readers rarely encounter these authors’ observations about movies and television programs. The “Masters” series invites these historians to consider, from a personal perspective, how cinema can present exciting opportunities and challenges for interpreting the past.
Robert Brent Toplin (Univ. of North Carolina at Wilmington, emeritus), a member of the Perspectives on History editorial advisory board, edits and coordinates the Masters at the Movies series, which he created.