Movies · Projects

The 36 Dramatic Situations: Wall Street (1987) and Ambition

How ‘Wall Street’ exemplifies Ambition, one of the 36 Dramatic Situations.
By  · Published on September 11th, 2010

This article is part of our 36 Dramatic Situations series.

For 36 days straight, we’ll be exploring the famous 36 Dramatic Situations by presenting a film that exemplifies each one. From family killing family to prisoners in need of asylum, we brush off the 19th-century list in order to remember that it’s still incredibly relevant today.

Whether you’re seeking a degree in Literature, love movies, or just love seeing things explode, our feature should have something for everyone. If it doesn’t, please don’t make us go down on Charlie Sheen in the back of a limo.

Part 34 of the 36-part series takes a look at “Ambition” with Wall Street.

The Synopsis

A young stockbroker named Bud Fox (Charlie Sheen) works the daily grind at an investment firm trying desperately to get ahead of the pack. His dream is to become a top player on Wall Street and to never want for anything… unlike his father (Martin Sheen) who has spent his entire life breaking his back in a blue-collar job. Bud sets his sights on Gordon Gekko (Michael Douglas) as the man who can help him achieve his goals. Gekko is everything Bud wants to be, and he’ll do whatever it takes to become Gekko’s protegé. But much like masturbation, ambition can lead to blindness, and soon Bud is left stumbling in a metaphorical darkness.

The Situation

“Ambition” – Three elements are needed for this situation. An Ambitious Person covets an Object/Goal but finds their desires possibly thwarted by an Adversary.

Bud Fox lives and breathes a desire and ambition for success at the top of the Wall Street food chain. Standing in his way are adversaries both human and otherwise. Gekko becomes one when he puts his own business concerns over what Bud feels is right. That conscience of Bud’s also gets in the way of his path up the ladder of success. Then there’s his father’s moral compass and the long arm of the law…

The Movie

Wall Street may just be Oliver Stone’s most traditional film. No controversy, no hyper-kinetic editing techniques, no leftist agenda… it’s just a straight-forward tale of good old fashioned ambition in 1980’s America. The actors are solid across the board, including Sheen the younger, with Douglas taking home the Oscar for Best Actor. Other recognizable faces include Hal Holbrook, John C McGinley, James Karen, Terence Stamp, Sean Young, and Charlie’s real-life dad playing his movie one. (Daryl Hannah stars too but I’m putting her in parentheses because her presence conflicts with my earlier statement about all of the actors being solid.)

Greed obviously plays a big part in the film as evidenced by the most well-known quote from the movie… “Greed is good.” Gekko says it to a room full of shareholders of a company he’s about to destroy, and it’s a dueling theme to the one of ambition. The two often go hand in hand, and sometimes what begins as honest ambition devolves into greed. The character of Bud is an example of that as his early desires are pure (relatively speaking), but as the smell and perks of success get stronger the temptations to cheat his way towards his goal become too strong.

Ambition is a common enough theme in American movies, but Wall Street is probably the clearest example of both the dream and the cost of acquiring it. The late eighties were a very particular time in the US in regard to money, greed, and financial gain, and the film would have been far less relevant had it been made in almost any other decade. Almost… our current financial crisis is directly related to the excesses that exploded in the eighties and returned in the past ten years. And now it all comes full circle both in the real world and in the cinemas… Stone’s sequel, Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps, opens later this month.

Bonus Examples: Tucker: A Man And His Dream, Bob Roberts

Check out our entire series of 36 Dramatic Situations, 36 Movies.

Related Topics:

Rob Hunter has been writing for Film School Rejects since before you were born, which is weird seeing as he's so damn young. He's our Chief Film Critic and Associate Editor and lists 'Broadcast News' as his favorite film of all time. Feel free to say hi if you see him on Twitter @FakeRobHunter.