I finally watched Wall Street the other day. It was on my bucket list. Other people may have skydiving or climbing Mount Everest on their bucket list, but I just wanted to finally see Wall Street, catch a foul ball at a baseball game, and start a blog with a vaguely agricultural theme. Check, check, and check.

“If I outlive Douglas, you think I have a shot with Catherine Zeta-Jones?”

So, Wall Street. It’s really good! It’s also very 80’s, which…did the 80’s really happen? Did people really dress and act like? I’m sure future generations will mock us with our iPets and eSpouses, but, wow, sometimes I think everyone in the 80’s was on serious drugs all the time.

Someone who was almost certainly on serious drugs in both the 80’s and the presents, is Charlie Sheen, who plays the protagonist of Wall Street, Bud Fox, a young, eager stock broker trying to make it big in New York city. Bud’s name is a clue to the theme of the movie, a young man deciding whether to pursue the good path or the evil path. Is he going to be a loyal friend (Bud) or a deceiver (like a Fox?).

Bud has some role models to follow in choosing which path to follow, sort of like the good and bad angels that you might find sitting on someone’s shoulders in an episode of Tom and Jerry. On the good shoulder is his dad, Carl Fox, who is played, sensibly enough, by Charlie Sheen’s dad, Martin Sheen. Carl is an airline mechanic, a hard-working, honest man who asks his son when he’s going to get a real job. There is also Lou Mannheim, played by Hal Holbrook, an older broker at Bud’s firm, who advises Bud to make the sensible play, to plan for the long term, and to do other such wise, if boring, things. On the bad shoulder, of course, is Gordon Gekko, played by Michael Douglas in his most enduring role. Gekko is handsome, well-dressed, wallowing in self-confidence, articulate, wealthy beyond belief, and completely amoral. He also finds time to coach the Los Angeles Lakers to four championships in the 80’s. What? That was someone else? If you say so.* Needless to say, Carl and Lou stand no chance against Gordon.

“Magic, I’m going to make you a very rich man.”
*It seriously is a little creepy how much Pat Riley looks and acts like Gordon Gekko. Right down to cold-bloodedly stabbing Stan Van Gundy in the back to win a fifth ring with the Miami Heat.

Douglas gives one of the great performances ever as Gekko.* He has more money and has had more success than anyone could ever want, yet he continues to put his fortune at risk by engaging in insider trading. If you don’t know, insider trading is using information not available to the public in deciding when to buy and sell stocks. It’s very illegal (just ask Martha Stewart), especially for a stock broker, who will lose his broker’s license for doing it. Of course, if you don’t get caught, you can make a bajillion dollars doing it, which is what Gekko does, and, ultimately, what he convinces Bud to do.

*Actually, it’s a little too convincing. Perhaps Michael Douglas really does have diabolical powers. That would explain how he landed Catherine Zeta Jones despite being 134 years old.

But what motivates Gekko to keep doing it? It’s not money or success, but the drive to win the game, to crush the other guy. There’s a great scene where Bud is with Gekko in the back of his limousine, and he’s explaining how he makes his money, and what sort of information he would like Bud to find for him. Bud’s already tasted the good life, he’s seen what sort of privileges money like Gekko’s can afford. Gekko knows this will be enough to hook Bud. When Bud protests that he could lose his license if he does what Gekko wants, Gekko doesn’t get upset or threaten Bud. He calmly stops the limo, and lets Bud out. When Bud returns a few seconds later to say, “you got me, Mr. Gekko,” Gekko leans back and smiles broadly, looking as close to joyous as he does any time in the movie. It’s a look of pure satisfaction. Gekko wins again.

As I watched Wall Street, what I asked myself was this: why is Gekko such a fascinating character? I knew he was evil before I watched the movie, and everything he did in the movie reinforced that conclusion, but I found him to be thoroughly compelling. Though he’s completely misguided, he dares mightily, takes risks, isn’t afraid to take on anyone or anything. He’s more mesmerizing than Daryl Hannah’s ridiculous hairdo.* At times, I found myself rooting for him to “stick it to those Ivy League bastards.” He was, dare I say, heroic?

“Gordon, do you think you could buy me a visit to the salon?”
*Again, what was going on in the 80’s?

This is the same thing that happens to people when they read Paradise Lost. Though Lucifer is by definition the most evil creature in history, he emerges as the most interesting, engaging, dynamic, and exciting character in the poem. Though Adam is the “hero” of the work, Lucifer drives the action, and he is ultimately a more sympathetic and relatable character than Adam despite being, well, Satan.

Why is it that we can find evil so fascinating even when we know, without a doubt, that it is evil? Maybe there’s a clue in the stories of Paradise Lost and Wall Street. Both Gekko and Lucifer strive to accomplish remarkable things. Gekko strives to rise above his common beginnings to be a better broker than the children of wealth and privilege that he competes with. Lucifer dares even to rebel against the Almighty. Taking on such seemingly impossible tasks is usually the type of thing we expect from our heroes. We naturally admire ambition and daring, whether it’s used in slaying dragons and rescuing maidens or in storming the gates of heaven itself.

“Can I just get some stock brokers with freaking laser beams on their heads?”

That’s why I believe pride is the most seductive sin, the one that can most convincingly masquerade as virtue. After all, evil has no essence of its own; evil is merely a perversion of something good. Love becomes lust; justice becomes wrath; rest becomes sloth. And ambition, the desire to be truly great and to accomplish worthy deeds, becomes pride. It sits on our shoulder and whispers in our ear that we deserve what we are seeking, that those we hurt are unworthy, that we are working for some undefined greater good. If we have to work so hard to accomplish it, how can it be bad?

Douglas’ turn as Gordon Gekko is so memorable that it has overshadowed the larger message of Wall Street. The ultimate theme of Wall Street is that greed is destructive, that a young man throws away his promise when he ignores his better angels and, like Faust, gives in to the seduction of wealth and power. But that’s not what people remember. Oliver Stone has lamented that, through the years, people have come up to him and enthusiastically parrotted, “greed is good!” as though that were the moral of the Wall Street story. Stone’s point was that greed is NOT good, and that integrity, honesty, and prudence are good. But it’s hard to see that when you can’t take your eyes off of Gordon Gekko.