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Retro, but still relevant

'Wall Street,' 'Salvador' and 'The Rose' -- they're all visions of the past, but they also illuminate the present. With movies in the summer doldrums, it's time to revisit a few cinematic antecedents to current events.

July 26, 2009|BETSY SHARKEY | FILM CRITIC

I blame Bernie Madoff for this.

Or more precisely, it was a midnight collision of Madoff madness, insomnia and cable's endless loop of films. Though if not for the saturation of news about the high-flying broker/con artist who trapezed across the financial markets to such devastating effect, I might have bypassed "Wall Street" in favor of something more mind-numbing.

But this 22-year-old cut at the risky business of stocks and bonds turned out to be unexpectedly mesmerizing. Instead of looking its age, "Wall Street" was crackling with the same electrical current that is shocking us today, which is no doubt why a sequel has been bandied about.

It was almost as if all those years ago, writer-director Oliver Stone and co-writer Stanley Weiser closed their eyes and envisioned the arrogance and audacity of a trader who could Ponzi away $65 billion in other people's money and still sleep like a baby. Their canary in the coal mine was Gordon Gekko, played with a seductive soullessness by Michael Douglas. For Gekko, beating the street was a drug, greed was an addiction, ethics nothing more than a nuisance. It all felt so Madoff.

Which led me to wonder, what other cautionary tales would wear as well now? Films that circumstance has turned vintage chic; visions of the past echoing and illuminating the present.

Watching CNN and MSNBC, images from "Broadcast News," "All the President's Men" and "Network" began swirling. Footage of President Obama triggered less linear notions -- "The American President," "Do the Right Thing," "Dave," "Only Angels Have Wings," "Guess Who's Coming to Dinner," "The Natural" and on and on.

Yet there were a handful of events churning through the news that immediately conjured up what felt like direct cinematic antecedents, films so closely bound to situations in their sense and sensibility to be worthy of a second look.

And so, for your consideration, my "retro to relevance" list. It's certainly not scientific, offered merely as a summer distraction for the movie-minded among you bored now that we've slipped into the season when theaters, like landfills, overflow with discards.

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Hot stocks, cold hearts

Would things have turned out different if we'd paid closer attention to Stone's portrayal of the financial market as a blood sport in "Wall Street"? Probably not, but filmmakers have been issuing warnings for years.

Consider the 1940 film "The Bank Dick," with W.C. Fields wrapping razor sharp commentary inside a mumble and a whimsical box of nonsense. It's the simple story of a bank, a bad stock deal that's going even further south, some "early" movement of funds, and Fields, as the newly appointed bank detective, asking just about everyone he meets, "Not boondoggling, are you?" A 69-year-old question we might do well to pose to CEOs during their annual review.

Next up, 1990's "Pretty Woman." Don't laugh. Julia Roberts' hooker had solid negotiating skills and no credit card debt. The other significant love story was that of a family business trying to stay intact in the face of Richard Gere's corporate raider. Watching his gamesmanship morph into decency as he discovers the virtue of building rather than fire sale-ing a business' assets is a pure pleasure. And he gets the girl. For free.

For the final word, I'd turn to Woody Allen's exquisite 1989 meditation on morality, "Crimes & Misdemeanors." Yes, it was murder, not embezzlement, that Martin Landau's Judah was rationalizing away, but witnessing his fear evolve into acceptance, then justification, then self-righteousness is terrifying. Sometimes it sounds like executives are cribbing from Allen's script when explaining away their involvement in the latest corporate collapse.

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Journalists without borders

On a wave of emotion and memory, 1982's "The Year of Living Dangerously," 1984's "The Killing Fields" and 1986's "Salvador" wash up. Different years, different wars, different countries, all capturing the high-stakes risk/reward of being a foreign correspondent.

It's life balanced on a tight wire with no net, as we have been so painfully reminded with Current TV reporters Laura Ling and Euna Lee sentenced to 12 years of hard labor by the North Korean government, and the June escape of New York Times foreign correspondent David Rohde after more than seven months as a Taliban hostage.

In "The Year of Living Dangerously," we watch as Indonesia's unfolding chaos seasons a young Mel Gibson as reporter Guy Hamilton, the end coming with a bloody coup. Insanity and death clog the streets in the final scenes as Guy navigates absolute anarchy, the bit of paper that marks him a journalist all that can save him.

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