Oliver Stone's unlikely right-wing appeal
There's no way to know for sure, but if a man with the name of Michael Moore had turned out a movie about a group of greedy bankers conspiring to save their own hides, it probably wouldn't have drawn the broad box-office support that 'Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps" received this past weekend.
As it turned out, the man who made that movie was, of course, Oliver Stone. At the moment, there might be no mainstream creative type more reviled by large segments of the right and center-right of the U.S. populace (including Moore). Just a few months ago, Stone's documentary "South of the Border" inspired an angry backlash — here's a small sampling — for its kid-glove treatment of Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez and its pot shots at American foreign policy. And then Stone threw an anti-semitism controversy on the pile for good measure. If you were trying to tell a director with a big studio movie what not to do in the months leading to his film's release, you'd pretty much come up with this list.
And yet when "Wall Street" opened, it landed a solid $19 million in its first weekend. That number wasn't just strong for a sequel to a 23-year-old movie, it was also Stone's best-ever opening in his 35 years of making movies.
The strong box office may reveal a truth about how Stone polarizes us. While his politics are decried by many, unlike Moore he's seen as a storyteller first. As long as he's giving that to audiences, they'll think nothing of shelling out eight or 10 bucks to see his movie, even if he slips in a little politics on the side. (We suppose you could argue that "Wall Street" would have grossed more had it not been Stone's name capping the credits. But when more than 2 million people pay to see your movie on a September weekend, you can't be that alienating.)
It's hard not to wonder, though, if there's something more going on here than moviegoers checking their politics at the theater door. For all the Wall Street excess that Stone's new film depicts, the movie (spoiler alert — skip ahead to the next paragraph if you'd rather not know) in many ways offers a benign, even uplifting message about the Street. Sure, the fevered speculation drives one old-timer to take his life. But the movie ultimately tells the story of a young idealist -- and one who gets the money and the girl to boot.
Even one of moviedom's all-time unrepentant characters, the Wall Street sharpie Gordon Gekko, seeks, and (after a lapse) gains, redemption. Compared to the original, which sees said sharpie sent off to jail, this chapter of his story is almost.. heartwarming. Big business and the financial industry may have a deep skepticism for the current Democratic administration. But there's little for them to dislike in a movie about them from the most outspoken of left-wing filmmakers.
(It may be no coincidence, then, that so many on Wall Street cooperated with Stone. As screenwriter Allan Loeb told us this morning, "I wasn't sure sure how a new movie would go over on Wall Street. I was afraid I'd have to go back to the studio and say this isn't a good idea. But instead they said, 'The time has come. How can I help?' ")
It's not the first time Stone has shifted gears to such salable effect. Four years ago the director gave us "World Trade Center," a triumph-of-the-spirit tale that also centered on a hot-button political topic, and was not only not condemned by the right but got them hailing Stone for his patriotism. Just like "Wall Street," that became his biggest grosser to date.
So our question about the Wall Street box office perhaps should be less about the public putting ideology aside and instead about how Stone did the same. The director has savvily figured out how to play down his ideology when working in the studio system; as Loeb told us, "Working with Oliver, nothing was ever discussed in terms of politics." Stone may play an ideologue in real life, but at the multiplex, he's all pragmatist.
There's little doubt that Stone will continue angering the right with his public comments and documentaries. When it comes to features, however, he knows (like any good Wall Streeter) that it's best to follow where the market is headed.
— Steven Zeitchik
Photo: Oliver Stone. Credit: Jason Kempin / Getty Images.
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