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Greed is Good: 10 Movies That (Help) Explain the 80s


Wall Street (1987, Oliver Stone)

An old-fashioned morality tale about a man who sells his soul to the devil and tries to get it back before it’s too late, Oliver Stone’s treatise on greed, money, and corruption perfectly captures the mood (and headlines) surrounding the insider-trading scandals of the late 80s. The power of the movie lies in the one-two punch of Michael Douglas’s Oscar winning performance (as Wall Street tycoon Gordon Gekko) paired with Stone’s phenomenally quotable script. Everyone knows the “Greed is Good” speech, but check out this gem as Gekko explains to his apprentice the true nature of democracy.

“The richest one percent of this country owns half our country’s wealth, five trillion dollars. One third of that comes from hard work, two thirds comes from inheritance, interest on interest accumulating to widows and idiot sons and what I do, stock and real estate speculation. It’s bullshit. You got ninety percent of the American public out there with little or no net worth. I create nothing. I own. We make the rules, pal. The news, war, peace, famine, upheaval, the price per paper clip. We pick that rabbit out of the hat while everybody sits out there wondering how the hell we did it. Now you’re not naive enough to think we’re living in a democracy, are you buddy? It’s the free market. And you’re a part of it. You’ve got that killer instinct. Stick around pal, I’ve still got a lot to teach you.”

Stone is sometimes criticized for sermonizing rather than storytelling, but with dialogue this good the preaching goes down pretty easy.


Red Dawn (1984, John Milius)

Heartless, bloodthirsty communists invade America! It’s up to Patrick Swayze and Charlie Sheen (and, to a lesser extent, C. Thomas Howell) to stop them. This unabashed piece of pro-USA agitprop neatly combines war films, teen movies and Regan-era cold war paranoia. Picked as #15 in the National Review‘s “Best Conservative Movies,” John Milius’s script also implicates liberals, gun-control advocates and the federal government as being complicit (unintentionally or not) in allowing the invasion to take place (it’s through the ATF’s record of gun owners that the commies are able to round up and do away with any possible civilian resistance). Rated by The Guinness Book of World Records as the most violent movie ever made at the time of its release, Dawn also holds an interesting historical footnote as being the first movie released under the PG-13 rating. Perfect quote to sum up the movie: as Patrick Swayze prepares to execute a Russian officer (and one of his own friends, who was forced into collaborating), the officer cries out, “This violates the Geneva Convention!” Swayze’s response? “I never heard of it.” WOLVERINES!!!


The Breakfast Club (1985, John Hughes)

It’s not every director that can be credited with creating an entire genre, but teen-comedies pretty much exist as we know them today thanks to John Hughes. Hughes understood all the angst, misunderstanding, social posturing, and feelings of inadequacy that are part of the high school experience, and comedies like Pretty in Pink, Sixteen Candles, and The Breakfast Club are remarkable not only for handling those complex emotions but by being able to do so and still be really, really funny. Breakfast Club threw together five high-school archetypes: “the brain, the athlete, the basket case, the princess, and the criminal,” and let them discover together that while high school may tell them they’re in an untouchable caste system maybe they’re really all the same at heart. Of course, it’s very telling to the true attitude of the times that the “basket case” (Ally Sheedy) gets redeemed through a makeover to make her look more like a princess and that the nerd is left behind alone to do everyone else’s homework while the jock/basket case and criminal/princess pair up and leave. Great dance scene, though.


Heathers (1989, Michael Lehman)

If The Breakfast Club is the earnest A-student of teen-movies, then Heathers is its cigarette smoking, juvenile-delinquent, second cousin. Where Hughes’s movies never forget the emotional and moral core at the center of its characters’ lives, Heathers prides itself on being thoroughly unemotional and gleefully amoral. It’s a hilarious take on the high school social structure and what it means to be popular, and the idea that – y’know what – maybe we’re all better off with certain people dead (warning: NSFW).


American Psycho (2000, Mary Harron)

Great satire works by highlighting the more ridiculous aspects of a culture and then blowing them up out of proportion; exaggerating them to comedic effect so we can get a good, clear look. So what better way to explain the soulless consumerism of the late 80s than through the story of a completely soulless consumerist monster: yuppie/investment banker/serial killer Patrick Bateman? In one of Christian Bale’s best performances, Bateman is a convincing simulacrum of a human being: all surface, hollow at the center. But in a culture predicated on surface appearances, he fits in just fine – to the point where his yuppie friends and coworkers don’t notice little things like blood-stained sheets and jokes about Ed Gein. Bale is famously quoted for citing his inspiration for the performance as a TV interview with Tom Cruise and Cruise’s “intense friendliness, with nothing behind his eyes.” Yeah, that sums it up about right. Revel in the “pleasures of conformity” (warning: really NSFW).


The Decline of Western Civilization/The Decline of Western Civilzation Part II: The Metal Years (1981/1988, Penelope Spheeris)

In 1980 director Penelope Spheeris set out to make a documentary about the burgeoning L.A. punk scene. Featuring performances by and interviews with bands like Black Flag, Circle Jerks, the Germs, and X (along with interviews of the kids who made up their audience), the first Decline is a chronicle of the disaffected – while disco, new wave, and Air Supply ruled the charts, something much darker and dirtier was building steam. She returns to L.A. in 1987, this time to record the pinnacles of rock n’ roll excess with the glam metal scene. Better and truer than any Behind the Music episode, Spheeris’s two documentaries combine to paint an important portrait of the path of rock in the 80s. In one of the more sobering moments of the film, Spheeris interviews (completely) intoxicated W.A.S.P. front man Chris Holmes from his pool (NSFW).


Rocky III (1982, Sylvester Stallone)

Although the fourth Rocky has the Itallian Stallion single-handedly defeating communism as we know it (“If I can change, and you can change, everybody can change!”), I think the third sequel is a great example of what the 80s were all about, especially when contrasted with the Oscar-winning original from 1976. In the first Rocky, Stallone is the ultimate working-class underdog – he doesn’t even win the big fight, his pride comes from “going the distance.” Fast-forward to 1982, where Rocky is one of the biggest sports stars in the world (interesting comparison – look at Rocky’s physique in the first two vs. three and four. He goes from being just a big guy to quite possibly the pinnacle of physical fitness – the dude is cut). Wealth and fame have gotten him soft, so when a truly vicious and hungry fighter from the mean streets of Chicago (a never-better Mr. T) comes along and takes his belt (and kills Burgess Meredith), Rocky gets a little help from his old rival turned bestest buddy A pollo Creed to regain the “Eye of the Tiger.” The first one was all about a nobody whose only hope was to go the distance; the third is about a superstar reclaiming his crown. In the span of seven years, we’ve gone from rooting for working class schmoes with heart to rooting for the megastar with fame and fortune (but with heart). Cue the montage.


Do the Right Thing (1989, Spike Lee)

Considered by many to be a landmark film in the depiction and discussion of race relations in America (it’s one of five movies ever to be included in the Library of Congress’s National Film Registry the first year of its eligibility – the other four being Raging Bull, Goodfellas, Toy Story and Fargo), Spike Lee’s 1989 breakthrough hit was greeted with protests as it hit the theaters, polarizing audiences with its depiction of frustration, conflict and, ultimately, violence between a white store owner and the predominantly black community he resides in. By refusing to explicitly support or denounce the violence at the end of the move, Lee leaves a decidedly open-ended question on the proper responses to racism. It should be noted as a true testament to the racial climate of the late 80s, Do the Right Thing was shut out of the Best Picture and Best Director categories, garnering nominations only for Best Original Screenplay (it lost to Dead Poets Society) and Best Supporting Actor for Danny Aiello. The winner for Best Picture that year? Driving Miss Daisy.


Top Gun (1986, Tony Scott)

Maverick. Goose. Iceman. “Playing With the Boys.” “Danger Zone.” Tom Cruise. What more needs to be said? Let’s ask Quentin Tarantino (NSFW).


Breakin’ 2: Electric Boogaloo (1984, Sam Firstenberg)

The early 80s saw the birth of hip-hop, graffiti art, beat-boxing and breakdancing – and Hollywood was quick to cash in on what those crazy kids were up to. Movies like Wild Style, Breakin’, Beat Street, and Krush Groove were all pretty worthless as far as story, and acting were concerned (though if you’ve ever wanted to know what Mario Van Peebles and Eric LaSalle sound like as MCs check out Rappin. Or better yet, don’t), but as time capsules they’re priceless. Wild Style features Fab Five Freddie, The Rocksteady Crew, and Grandmaster Flash; Beat Street showcases the Treacherous Three, Doug E. Fresh, The Magnificent Force and Grandmaster Melle Mel; and Krush Groove has Run DMC, the Beastie Boys, the Fat Boys and L.L. Cool J. But the preeminent example of the genre has to be Breakin’ 2: Electric Boogaloo. Rushed into theaters a mere 9 months after the success of the first one by schlock merchants Cannon films (also responsible for 80s crapfests Delta Force, Death Wish 2-4, American Ninja, the He-Man movie, and many, many others), Breakin’ 2 is remarkable mainly for being immensely, immensely stupid. Aside from an appearance by Ice-T(!), the soundtrack is composed almost entirely by no-hit wonders Ollie & Jerry. The plot is the ultimate 80s cliche: the kids have to stop a greedy developer from bulldozing a community center. The less said about the acting, the better. So why do I hold this film up for example? Mainly because it was such a cheesy, quickie cash-in (a perfectly viable 80s movie genre) and a great example of 80s pop culture at the time – a film trying to be hip without really understanding what it was being hip about.