Two films directed by Oliver Stone were released in 2010: Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps (WS) and South of the Border (SB). Formally, the two films could not be more different: the first one is a fiction film, the sequel to Stone’s famous Wall Street (1987), while the second is a political documentary on contemporary South American politics. While WS is a major production featuring stars such as Michael Douglas and Shia LaBeouf, and distributed by 20th Century Fox, SB is a small independent film distributed by Cinema Libre. Yet it seems to me that the key for understanding WS is to be found in SB, specifically in one scene towards the end of the documentary in which Oliver Stone briefly explains his views on political economy: whereas nowadays the dominant form of capitalism is that of predatory capitalism, a benign form of this system is also possible, and the director expresses his hope that it will be achieved in the future. In order to develop my argument, I will start by discussing WS first and then move on to SB. Having reviewed the two films, I will be able to better explain the connection between them. 

WS is a sequel to Stone’s original and controversial film from 1987, also starring Michael Douglas as Gordon Gekko, a major Wall Street player, unscrupulous and ruthless (a role for which Douglas won an Oscar in the Best Actor category). If the original film became a scathing critique of corporate greed during the 1980s, the new film was intended, or so did the film’s marketing campaign led us to believe, to attack the unbound speculation, irresponsible banking practices, and obscure corporate finances that led to the economic meltdown of 2008. This, however, is far from the case, and in the end WS seems to be nothing but what the film, on the surface, intended to denounce: a product of greed, an excuse to cash in on the 2008 crisis by tackling it under the name of Oliver Stone, who is often regarded as an uncompromising critic of American society but, in this film (at least) is merely another one of its supporters. WS has everything that is wrong with Hollywood films (cardboard characters, black and white morals, a shallow love story, a predictable ending) and nothing of what sometimes redeems them (a gripping plot, good dialogue, or an unsuspected final twist). The protagonist is Jake Moore (LaBeouf), a young trader working for one of Wall Street’s largest investment banks and the protégé of its director, Louis Zabel (Frank Langella). Jake seems to be the counterpart of Bud Fox (Charlie Sheen) in the original film, another young trader wishing to make a career in Wall Street. But whereas Bud Fox was a morally ambiguous character, ambitious to the point of being willing to operate beyond legality and to betray his own father, there are no such risks with Jake. His goodness is never put into question; he wishes to become a major Wall Street figure but only by investing in clean, alternative energy. His boss, Zabel, is also a good and honourable banker, who commits suicide when he realizes his firm is about to collapse because of toxic debt. Before killing himself, in a gesture that demonstrates his generosity and unselfishness, Zabel gives a gift of 1.5 million dollars not to any charity organization but to the already well-off Jake. Jake lives with his fiancée Winnie (Carey Mulligan), a writer for a left-wing online journal who, to complicate things, happens to be the estranged daughter of Gordon Gekko. She apparently blames Gekko for the suicide of her brother, and refuses to have anything to do with him and what he represents, even to the point of rejecting the 100 million dollars Gekko has left her in a Swiss bank account – although her principles and dislike for the Wall Street environment do not prevent her from being in a relationship with Jake and living in his luxurious Manhattan apartment. Of course, Jake is not like the other stockbrokers: he is preternaturally good. If only all Wall Street players were like him… Actually, this seems to be the case, for there is one truly evil character in the film: Bretton James (Josh Brolin), another billionaire investment banker. But James is a bad man, and we know this mostly because of the film’s score, the continuously menacing face Brolin puts up when playing the character, and the painting that decorates his office (Goya’s Saturn Devouring His Son). Gekko, of course, is a deviously charming and seductive figure, but this was so in the original film and there’s nothing wrong with it – on the contrary, it’s what makes him interesting as a character, unlike the one-dimensional James. However, WS will eventually undermine any complexity that the character of Gekko may have. Although at some point we get the impression that Gekko, making a living as a writer and lecturer after having been released from prison (he was jailed at the end of the original film for insider trading), goes back to his unscrupulous days, finally he turns out an honourable man and devout father. For after getting close to Jake, Gekko manages to steal the 100 million that were set aside in Switzerland for Winnie. He moves to London, where he becomes once again a hugely successful trader and quickly transforms the 100 million into one billion. However, he is soon visited by Jake, who hands him a copy of Winnie’s ultrasound scan, where her unborn child – and thus Gekko’s grandson – can be seen. Gekko is unfazed, but in the end he returns to New York, gives back the money, and everything ends happily (except for James, who is exposed and jailed because, of course, he is the bad guy). The last scene consists of a large birthday party in which all the characters celebrate the first birthday of Gekko’s grandson.

Such an ending, besides being overtly stupid, is unworthy of the character of Gordon Gekko (whose most famous line from the original film was “Greed is good”), unworthy of a film on corporate greed, and perhaps even unworthy of a film by Stone (although viewers of Any Given Sunday or Alexander might disagree). Ultimately, however, the film’s message is not stupid but sinister: nothing is wrong with rampant speculation in the stock exchange, and nothing is wrong with a few investors making billions of dollars by betting on the flows of the market, as long as they remain loving parents and retain a sympathy for ecological causes (provided they are also profitable, surely). The film does not even hint at any inherent contradictions in a system in which a few get immensely rich through speculation while the large majority cannot but suffer the consequences of the disastrous financial policies that those few have generated. Never do we see an example of the negative outcomes of the financial meltdown – apart from the fact that Jake’s mother (Susan Sarandon) has been forced to quit her job in real estate and has gone back to working as a nurse. Where are the countless victims of the crisis, those who lost their jobs and their homes? What about the politicians, economists, bankers, and IMF or World Bank directors that allowed this to happen? None of this seems to have been worth showing in a film supposedly about the financial meltdown. In his review, Roger Ebert writes that the film “isn’t nearly as merciless as I expected”.[1] Merciless? The film is nothing but celebratory, completely undermining the critical message (if there truly was one) of the original Wall Street. In fact, had not Michael Moore named his latest film “Capitalism: A Love Story”, it would have been a far better title for Wall Street’s sequel than “Money Never Sleeps” (only it would have been free of irony). And yet, despite the overt endorsement of the capitalist system in its contemporary form, Stone still keeps a reputation of being a left-wing filmmaker. Is this so? This leads us to the second film I want to discuss here: South of the Border.

Whereas the intentions behind the making of WS are quite clear (celebrating capitalist speculation and endorsing current global finances), the same cannot be said of South of the Border, in the sense that the film lacks a clear objective. It appears Stone and his team did not quite agree on what film they wanted to make: is it a documentary on Hugo Chávez, president of Venezuela? Is it a documentary on the new populist and left-wing movements that have emerged in Latin America over the last decade? Is it a critique of the way in which conservative US media distort information? This last would be the only aspect in which the film succeeds. For SB is at its best when attacking what, arguably, Stone knows the most: the reactionary media in the US. By simply showing some clips recorded from TV broadcasts the film exposes the ignorance, ethnocentrism and stupidity of TV presenters who confuse “coca” with “cocoa” and refer to democratically elected presidents as dictators, while at the same time highlighting the political biases of the major TV networks in the US – those champions of pensée unique who construct a univocal image of those Latin American leaders who do not enjoy the sympathy of conservative sectors. In one the most interesting clips we see former CIA director George Tenet complaining that Chávez “doesn’t have the interests of the US at heart”, clearly illustrating American attitudes towards foreign policy – it is American interests what de jure presidents of independent nations across the world should have in mind rather than those of their own countries.   

Despite these brief moments, however, the film is mostly centred on the figure of Hugo Chávez, whose name Mr Stone, unlike most other Americans in the film, never manages to pronounce correctly (accentuating it in the last syllable rather than the first). It is in this aspect where the film fails most consistently: we learn precious little about Chávez and his presidency, besides the fact that the US supported the 2002 coup against him (but the US has supported the large majority of coups in Latin American history). Stone spends a lot of time with Chávez, but hardly asks any questions, tough or otherwise. Moreover, conscious he is speaking for the cameras, Chávez acts mostly as a professional politician, offering his traditional and highly rhetoric discourse and not much else. Stone seems to take everything that he is being told for granted, and is not interested in going out into the streets of Venezuela interviewing ordinary people or shooting footage of the country’s villages, towns or cities. Whatever one thinks of Chávez, the film does nothing to challenge any views, either positive or negative, that one might have.

The key point here is not that, as most reviews of the film highlight, Stone does not offer alternative voices and avoids interviewing people who are critical of Chávez. It’s not that this point is untrue, only that it’s not really the main argument to be levelled against the film. For Stone has all the right to produce the documentary he wishes: if he believes that critical voices on Chávez have been heard often enough in American media, as he convincingly shows, and therefore wants to focus only on positive aspects of the Venezuelan leader to act as a counterbalance, then there is nothing wrong with this. But surely, then, there would be more consistent ways to defend Chávez than showing him kissing children, riding a bicycle in his childhood home, or singing with an improvised street band. If Stone has not been able to find anything better, then this does not say much about the person he wants to defend. This becomes more relevant later in the film, when he interviews other Latin American leaders. For example, although much shorter, the section on Ecuador offers some very interesting concepts provided by President Rafael Correa. On the other hand, if the objective is to offer a more human portrait of Chávez, this is hardly what the film achieves. We see Chávez greeting groups of people who approach him as he drives and walks through the streets, and we see him kissing children – but this is what every politician on campaign does, regardless of ideological inclinations. Moreover, during the one moment when we see Chávez acting spontaneously rather than for the cameras, Stone seems somewhat uncomfortable and taken aback: Chávez and Stone are visiting a huge corn-processing plant, recently inaugurated, and Chávez provocatively jokes that this is where “we are building the bomb for Iran”. Stone, visibly surprised, barely manages to reply “don’t say that” before Chávez adds that he’s talking about “the corn bomb” (needless to say, besides the intentionally provocative joke, the relationship between Chávez and Iran should be one of many issues that deserve a serious inquiry for somebody wishing to examine and assess Chávez´s government, but as mentioned this is not the purpose of Stone´s film).

After his time in Venezuela Stone embarks on a tour of other Latin American countries, where he interviews their presidents for increasingly shorter chapters of the documentary; he visits Bolivia, Argentina, Paraguay, Brazil, Ecuador and Cuba. Some of the interviews are so short that one wonders if it made sense to include them at all. Unless one is completely unfamiliar with these leaders and wants to find out what people such as “Lula” Da Silva, Fernando Lugo, or Cristina Kirchner look like, there is very little to be learnt here. In this sense, The Independent critic Anthony Quinn is quite right when he writes that “Stone is ill-equipped to conduct a serious political analysis of the continent. He gets amazing access to national leaders and yet, face to face with them, he doesn’t even look interested in what they have to say.”[2] 

So while I completely agree with Stone’s views about the inadequacy and bias of several sectors of the US media when reporting on Latin American politics, his documentary seems to treat the region in a way which is only somewhat less superficial – although definitely more benign and better          intentioned. This, I insist, is a point that can be made independently of one’s personal opinions and views on the political leaders interviewed, and which takes us back to the purpose behind the documentary. Could the whole enterprise be a strategy by Stone to preserve his fame as a left oriented filmmaker in the face of other recent films of him such as WS or World Trade Center? This doesn’t seem to be the case, for Stone´s interest in Latin America has been present throughout his career, as his film Salvador (1986) and his documentary on Fidel Castro, Comandante (2003), demonstrate. Perhaps, then, The Observer critic Philip French is on the right track when he states that “Stone has often represented himself as some kind of socialist, but his fascination with Castro and other Latin American leaders is little different from his love for Alexander the Great, the owners of National Football League clubs or Wall Street bullies.”[3] 

Of course, for all the shortcomings of SB, it is a far more interesting work than the shallow and trite WS – but this does not amount to much. However, it is strange that, as mentioned before, Stone chooses to end SB with his own reflection on the present world order. So far he had been often visible when interviewing the presidents, but without directly addressing the camera and not taking a central role on-screen (though he does provide the voice-over narration). Yet in the final scene he is shot as he walks through La Havana and directly states his opinion at the camera, himself being the focus of an interview by somebody off-screen. According to him, Stone explains, although the world is ruled by predatory capitalism, a benign form of this system is also possible. What is the point of such statement? Is this “benign capitalism” what he believes he has encountered, or is emerging, in the Latin American countries he has visited? If so, he makes no attempt in the film to verify whether this is case (a claim that would anyway be extremely difficult to sustain), nor does he discuss it with the leaders he interviews. Could the phrase be a disclaimer from Stone, lest he be accused in America of being an extreme leftist after making such a documentary? But the director has traditionally cultivated his (supposedly) left-wing stance, and has hardly been afraid of being provocative, as some of his films attest.

All of the above, then, brings us back to the beginning. If Stone’s opinion does not seem to quite fit within SB, it certainly explains something about WS. In this film, as mentioned, Stone avoids taking issue with the logic of the system itself, and offers a Maniquean and simplistic portrayal of a few billionaire Wall Street players, some of whom are predatory (actually it is only one), clearly indicated by Goya’s painting, in which the god Saturn eats his own son, and some of whom are benign, investing money on green companies and taking care of their own descendants (be them actual children, adopted ones, or grandchildren). Ultimately, it is the benign ones who triumph. Both literally and metaphorically, the contrast could not be more obvious and banal, and this is as far as the film seems to go in the analysis of the current global economy. Stone’s statement in SB, then, at least might help to explain why his portrayal of bankers, stockbrokers and Wall Street in general has been so benevolent. 

Ultimately, it is a disappointment that both films turn out the way they do. In the first case, because an intelligent, critical and honest fiction film that tackled the problem of the 2008 financial collapse, together with the role bankers, politicians, traders and government officials played in the crisis, and showing some of the devastating consequences the crisis had for millions of people, would be in fact welcome and instructive. In relation to SB, it must be recognised that Stone is one of the few major American film directors with an interest in Latin America, and that he is also, still, a central Hollywood filmmaker. Regardless of the quality of his work, Stone, a three-time Oscar winner, continues to release films regularly (usually starring A-list actors), enjoys a widespread presence in the media, and his name grants him access to presidents over the world. Given these circumstances, it is a shame that SB did not turn out to be a more sophisticated, intelligent and even controversial film. 

[1] Roger Ebert, “Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps”, (22 September 2010). 

[2] Anthony Quinn, “South of the Border”, The Independent, (30 July 2010).

[3] Philip French, “Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps – review”, The Observer (10 October 2010).