There Are No Wolves on Wall Street: On Slowly Losing Ourselves

We Muddle into our Personal and Collective Messes a Little Bit at a Time.

David Clay / 3.5.21

Inspired partly by the fascinating and bizarre goings-on in the stock market, and partly by studying for my stockbroker license, I’ve recently been on a Wall Street movie kick. As I compare and contrast these films in my mind, I’ve developed a sort of rough spectrum measuring how much agency the villains have over the events that unfold.

On one end of the spectrum, you have Wall Street (1987), starring Michael Douglas as the charismatic corporate raider Gordon Gekko and Charlie Sheen as Buddy Fox, Gekko’s apprentice-turned-nemesis. (Incidentally, the very best thing about this movie is Fox’s interaction with his crusty, blue-collar father, portrayed by one Martin Sheen). Gekko cheats. He obtains information illegally and uses it to manipulate markets. He buys companies, dismembers them, lays off hapless workers, pockets the profits. And he has a lot of fun doing it. Gekko is the original wolf of Wall Street, and Douglas turns in a brilliant performance of a man who loves what he does, and he isn’t really ashamed of it, either. “Greed, for lack of a better word, is good,” he famously tells shareholders at an annual meeting. Gekko sees himself as the personification of “creative destruction,” ridding the system of inefficiencies, until he goes too far and finds himself betrayed by his former disciple.

Fairly close to Wall Street is Boiler Room (2000), a film about a fly-by-night brokerage firm using high-pressure phone tactics to sell shares of companies that, surprise, don’t actually exist. There is a remarkable scene in which some of the characters are watching Wall Street and quoting it by heart — movie stockbrokers learning their trade from a movie (how meta!). None of these characters are quite as cool or unconflicted as Gekko. Still, they’re hooked on the thrill of the chase. In one early scene, the normally cacophonous trading floor goes silent as the other brokers listen to Vin Diesel’s character make a sale. He’s got a certain artistry about it, like a bullfighter. He pretends to nearly hang up the phone on his victim, declaring that he has no time for the uncommitted, that scores of others are beating down his door to own this stock. He implies that his interlocutor may be unworthy of such an opportunity. He lures his prey in, makes the sale, hangs up the phone. “Done and done,” he says, with all the quiet satisfaction of the true professional. 

From xkcd: https://xkcd.com/1570/. It’s an incredible web comic. Read it, folks.

For the sake of space, I’m going to skip a few titles and move directly to the other end of the spectrum. Margin Call (2011) is decidedly the best offering in the Wall Street/financial thriller genre. Relatedly, it takes on a very different feel from Wall Street, Boiler Room or even The Big Short, the last of which covers some of the same territory. Margin Call follows an unnamed investment bank during the first 24 hours of the 2008 financial meltdown that kicked off the Great Recession. In the first quarter of the film, a junior analyst “discovers” that the insanely complicated mortgage-backed securities comprising a huge chunk of the firm’s balance sheet are worthless, or will be so in the very near future. In reality, several higher-ups at the bank kinda sorta knew something was amiss already, but those assets had been so very profitable.

The viewer is then thrust into a series of after-midnight conference rooms, with about a dozen panicked-but-not-completely-shocked senior officers trying to stave off the impending catastrophe. Finally, the CEO orders the senior trader (a superb Kevin Spacey) to sell off the toxic assets at a discount, before any other financial institutions catch whiff of the underlying rot. Spacey’s character knows full well that this move will destroy companies and throw the people they employ into unemployment lines. “It’s just money,” observes the CEO. In the end, the senior trader acquiesces to the plan; the garbage is moved to increasingly suspicious victims at deeper and deeper discounts throughout the trading day. The senior trader tells his staff that it’s for the greater good — he almost manages to keep a straight face. After all, what else could have been done? 

No one is having much fun in Margin Call. There is no wolf at the top of a demonic ploy. The characters are reacting to a financial disaster that had been long in the making, not by anyone’s design but by ten thousand little compromises and inactions. The 1% don’t wrecked the economy according to some carefully conceived and executed malicious plot, but rather because everyone has half-consciously chosen not to pay attention.

Margin Call is my favorite of the Wall Street films because it most feels like the world we live in and the lives we actually lead. There are, to be sure, Ponzis and Madoffs here and there — but most of the time, we muddle into our personal and collective messes one misguided decision at a time. Slowly, incrementally, sin creeps in, bit by bit. Unlike Gordon Gekko or the Boiler Room sharks, we don’t even have much fun doing it. Sin isn’t even cool anymore; it’s just sad, but we still keep at it, half-heartedly. In Screwtape Proposes a Toast, C. S. Lewis’s senior demon bemoans the poor quality of the recently damned on whose anguish his colleagues are more or less feasting. The “Casserole of Adulterers,” for instance, is highly disappointing:

Could you find in it any trace of a fully inflamed, defiant, rebellious, insatiable lust? I couldn’t. They all tasted to me like under-sexed morons who had blundered or trickled into the wrong beds in automatic response to sexy advertisements, or to make themselves feel modern and emancipated, or to reassure themselves about their virility or their ‘normalcy’, or even because they had nothing else to do.

Blundering or trickling into the wrong habits, routines, attitudes, and relationships is simply what we do. “If I could start again,” pleaded both Trent Reznor and Johnny Cash, “A million miles away / I would keep myself / I would find a way.” If you don’t feel the force of those words, you’ve haven’t been alive for very long. But of course they’re not true. We would just find a different way to lose ourselves, to turn a blind eye, to half-consciously choose what probably makes us miserable. 

Hence why I’m a Christian. We have plenty of Monday morning quarterbacking over what went wrong in the (collective and individual) past, and game plans on how to fix it. We’re not hurting for good advice on how to keep ourselves. But what we desperately need, and what the gospel provides, is the hope that we are already kept by Another: “for you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God” (Col 3:3). This is the news that all of us, from the Gordon Gekkos to the under-sexed morons, need to hear every day.