[On July 30th, 1945, the USS Indianapolis was sunk by a Japanese submarine on its way back from delivering the components of the atomic bombs. That wartime tragedy became the basis for one of the great speeches in American film history, so this week I’ll AmericanStudy that monologue and four other knockout cinematic orations!]
On a multi-layered speech that sandwiches a compelling point within an all-too-familiar mythmaking frame.
The opening lines of Gordon Bekko’s “Greed is good” speech, the most famous moment in Oliver Stone’s Wall Street (1987), sound eerily similar to the June 2015 speech with which Donald Trump launched his presidential campaign. Trump’s speech opens with, “Our country is in serious trouble. We don’t have victories anymore. We used to have victories, but we don’t have them”; while Gekko begins, “we're not here to indulge in fantasy, but in political and economic reality. America has become a second-rate power. Its trade deficit and its fiscal deficit are at nightmare proportions.” Gekko was apparently based in large part on the prominent New York financier Ivan Boesky, who argued in a 1986 business school commencement address that “Greed is all right, by the way”; but Trump and Boesky ran in similar circles, and it seems far from coincidental that Stone puts “Make America Great Again” ideas in this character’s perspective. Like Gekko, after all (and Boesky, who not long after his speech was indicted for his role in an insider trading scandal), Trump uses this ostensible critique of our communal failings in order to advance his own agenda and wealth.
Stone and Michael Douglas manage to make the deeply despicable Gekko a charismatic and at times even sympathetic character, though, and the middle of this speech illustrates one key way in which they do so: by having him make a fair amount of sense. Gekko critiques the failing Teldar Paper company this way: “Teldar Paper has 33 different vice presidents, each earning over 200 thousand dollars a year. Now, I have spent the last two months analyzing what all these guys do, and I still can't figure it out. One thing I do know is that our paper company lost 110 million dollars last year, and I'll bet that half of that was spent in all the paperwork going back and forth between all these vice presidents.” While 33 seems like a hyperbolic number, in keeping with the movie’s overall, over-sized satirical feel, I have to admit that Gekko’s point here feels eerily prescient of our current age of administrative bloat within my own field of higher education. As I’ve argued elsewhere, by far the #1 reason for public higher ed’s financial struggles is defunding; but even if our proliferation of VPs and Deans and other administrators are not as central a cause as Gekko argues about these VPs, it remains deeply frustrating to learn of admin salaries that double or triple faculty compensation, all in an era of budget cuts and crises. In the middle of this speech, anyway, Gekko’s got me.
But in the speech’s final section, Gekko returns to and amplifies his opening MAGA-esque frame. The closing is best known for its “Greed—for lack of a better word—is good” line, but it also includes two parallel and even more problematic ideas. One is an implied embrace of the eugenicist theories known as Social Darwinism: “The new law of evolution in corporate America seems to be survival of the unfittest…Greed clarifies, cuts through, and captures the essence of the evolutionary spirit.” And the other is captured in Gekko’s culminating phrase: “And greed—you mark my words—will not only save Teldar Paper, but that other malfunctioning corporation called the USA.” Few recent political ideas have been more pernicious and destructive than the notion that the government is akin to and should be run like a business, and here Gekko goes one significant step further still: defining the nation itself as a corporation. I’m fine with the idea that all Americans are stakeholders in our society, but that’s not at all Gekko’s emphasis here—his repeated celebration of greed makes clear that it’s the corporate prioritizing of profit which he’s highlighting. Profit also seems clearly to be what President Trump has meant by “winning”—and just like Gordon Gekko before him, Trump means profit for himself and his friends, not (indeed, at the expense of) the rest of us stakeholders.
Next movie speech tomorrow,
PS. What do you think? Other movie speeches you’d highlight?
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