Movies reviewed here...
Wall Street #1.
Wall Street #2.
The Witness.

Wall Street

Reviewed By Jeff Lashbrook, SUNY Brockport

Besides being one of the better popular movies recently released, Wall Street is also quite relevant to sociology. It could be used in a number of courses, including introductory, social problems, crime and deviance, or society and economy courses, but I have found it particularly complementary to stratification.

The movie offers us a window on the world of high finance and upper class greed in telling the story of Bud Fox (Charlie Sheen), a young stock broker on Wall Street with working class roots who dreams of making it big, becoming in his words, "a player." To accomplish this, Bud's hope is to do business with one of the major "players," a corporate raider named Gordon Gekko (Michael Douglas). He finally succeeds in getting an appointment with Gekko but comes up empty with his stock tips until he hesitantly leaks some "insider" news about the airline company his father works for as a mechanic (he also serves as a union representative) and from whom he got the information. Gekko likes what he hears and has Bud buy the stock. Sensing Bud's hunger for "success," Gekko is also willing to take him under his wing, but only if Bud keeps on producing such information. Bud tails people, snoops in offices, and pumps some corporate lawyer friends for all he can get. While he is finally attaining his dream, he is also breaking the law and compromising any ethical standards he may have had. The rest of the movie traces the rise and fall of Bud Fox as he follows Gekko's tutelage. Near the end of the movie, however, they become enemies due to the takeover of the airline company where Bud's father works. After belatedly realizing that profit is the only thing that really matters to Gekko, Bud crosses him and saves the company Gekko meant to trash; Bud burns Gekko for a huge loss in the process. To accomplish this though, Bud has to resort to more of the illegal tricks he has learned. He's finally arrested and faces the prospect of jail at the end of the movie.

A number of issues relevant to stratification are portrayed in the movie. In general, the movie offers a glimpse into the upper class world and gives us a taste of the economic power members of this class wield. It is difficult to assess how realistic this portrayal is, however, because this group keeps the rest of society, sociologists included, at arm's length. More specifically, there are many other aspects of stratification evident in the movie; some are central to the plot, others less so. Some of the latter include gender stratification, inter- and interdenominational mobility, life chances, notions of the power elite, and theoretical ideas from Marx. Let me expand on a couple of these before turning to a theme central to both the movie and my course.

Gender stratification is prominent yet students may not pick up on it because gender make-up in the business world is seemingly taken for granted. Wall Street, as portrayed here, is a male dominated world (not to mention white and middle-aged as well!). Women are secretaries or prostitutes, available to men with money to do their bidding. Gekko's wife appears briefly and is responsible for the domestic realm though the daily activities are performed by servants and a nanny.

Toward the end of the movie, Gekko expounds on the "reality" in America. This scene contains a vivid representation of Domhoff's ruling class thesis as Gekko cites how a majority of the country's wealth is owned by a very small group and that this group calls the shots.

More central to the movie and my course are the psychological costs of a class system. This, of course, is the central thesis of Sennett and Cobb's The Hidden Injuries of Class, a book used in the course. Though dated, I feel it remains one of the best statements about cultural deprivations many experience due to inequality. Many of the issues discussed in the book are played out in the movie, such as the relationship between the cultural rewards of freedom and dignity, the constant striving for "badges of ability."

While the movie is enjoyable, it shares a common limitation with much of the rest of the products in our popular culture. The story is told in individual terms and thus deflects attention away from the institutional structures such individuals are embedded within. Discussion is important then though it remains fairly open in our class. I have simply broken students into groups and have them come up with a list of course issues portrayed in the movie (with elaboration). If one is interested in the notion of values clarification, one might have students consider what they would have done if they were in Bud's shoes, keeping in mind institutional pressures. Finally, I have used the following question on an exam:

In the recent movie, Wall Street, there are obvious class differences demonstrated as Martin and Charlie Sheen star as blue-collar father and Wall Street son, respectively. In one intense confrontation, the father is angry at his son's joining forces with a corrupt Wall Street tycoon (played by Michael Douglas) in an attempt to take over the company where his father works. The father is also angry about his son's ultimate wish to emulate the tycoon. In an elevator he shouts at his son "I know enough not to judge a man by the SIZE OF HIS WALLET!"

How can we interrupt what's going on using Sennett and Cobb's terms? In your attempt to build an essay on Sennett and Cobb's ideas by focusing on this quote, you should consider the following:

  • What does the "size of a man"s wallet" represent in Sennett and Cobb"s terms? What are other examples and, most importantly, what purpose do they serve?
  • What does the working class father judge a man by? What does the son and the rest of society judge a man by?
  • What effects are there in being judged on the basis of those things society says are important?
  • What is the relationship of freedom and dignity in all this? What has all the Wall Street son gained? What has he lost? What about the father?

In summary, the movie met with an enthusiastic response from students, and I feel it presents the rare opportunity to combine something potentially educational and entertaining.

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Wall Street

Reviewed by Michael Gose, Pepperdine University

Money! Now that I have gotten your attention let me familiarize you with Wall Street, both the film and the institution. In a time of yuppies and materialism we are introduced to big money and what it takes to make it. The institution Wall Street is located in New Yorks lower Manhatten and is home to some of the strongest stock brokerage houses in the entire world. This is a place of fantasy for some; yet doom for the less fortunate. The films timeliness could not have been better with both the stock market crash of October 19,1987 (Black Monday) still so vivid in our minds and the Ivan Boesky/Drexel scandal so fresh to us that the films subject is almost perfectly focused. Wall Street takes us to the front lines of an industry that has recently undergone a decline in values and ethics that once were the cornerstone of American business.

Wall Street is representitive of todays current financial markets of the United States. Characters are realistic as well as the problems that todays companies on Wall Street are currently facing. In this period of material wealth and high ambitions we are introduced to Bud Fox (Charlie Sheen) a young ambitious stock broker who makes $50,000 a year in salary. Bud believes he must make himself a major player in the market at any cost and later in the film he prooves this to us. He sits behind his desk and computer terminal persistantly cold calling potential clients that will hopefully solve his personal financial dilema. His goal is to "bag the elephant" which means doing business with one of the bigger investors in the financial markets of Wall Street. In contrast we are later introduced to Gordon Gecko (Michael Douglas) one of the wealthiest players in the financial arena. Gecko has it all and is continuously searching for more information to help fulfill his need for more wealth. Gecko is an arbitrager in the business world. An arbitrager is one who searches for information about firms that are wreakable. Once a potential firm is found and taken over the arbitrager can then make lucrative profits through liquidation of the taken over companies assets. One might say that Gecko is driven by greed because he doesn't care about those people in the company or their future only his bank account.

While evaluating the film Wall Street, I immediately sensed the greed Gecko exhibited. This greed becomes apparent when Bud finally gets into Gecko's office with a birthday box of cigars. Gecko knew that Bud was coming to see him and one would assume that Gecko would sit and conduct a personable meeting with Bud, yet Gecko continues to conduct business over the phone and even goes as far as to liquidate one of his taken over companies over the phone in Bud's presence. Gecko senses Bud's ambition and decides to phone Bud and give him a chance. He has Bud buy 20,000 shares of stock for him but stresses to Bud,"don't screw it up." One can sense that Gecko's dialogue throughout the film is basically one long speech centering around his greed. Gecko likes having poor guys working for him who are smart because he believes that they will produce more information for him. In a conversation with Bud, Gecko stresses "if you are not inside, you are outside." This is a hint to Bud implying do you have what it takes to work for me. Gecko stresses the importance of getting information instead of sending him information. Gecko needs Bud to get all the information he can about a rival arbitrager's intentions and actions about a certain steel corporation. Through heavy footwork Bud indeed finds out that Gecko's rival is planning a takeover and using offshore accounts to finance this venture. By using offshore accounts there exists the certainty of keeping his intentions quiet. With his newly aquired information Gecko starts buying up the same stock so he can eventually make substantial profits. This action may not be ethical yet Gecko doesn't care because as he says, "money never sleeps." Gecko continues to use Bud to access information and Bud goes as far as to break into Teldar Paper to gather new data. Gecko insures Bud that he will become rich hence Bud is becoming even more driven by greed.

The most important scene of the film that symbolizes the greed of Gordon Gecko is his speech to the shareholders of Teldar Paper. Gecko clarifies that he is the strongest shareholder and that management really has no say in the companies strategic decissions. The stockholders own it all and, "management is royally screwing you over" (the shareholders). He emphasizes that he is a "liberator" of companies although he buys them out; liquidates them and leaves thousands jobless. He fails to mention the unemployment factor that results due to his liberation.A scene that puts Gecko's greed into perspective for Bud is the liquidation plans of Blue Star Airlines. Bud learns that Gecko intends to, "sell the hangers, planes and right on down to the typewriters." When Bud learns of this plan he calls Gordon on it, "what about the garage sale at Blue Star." Buds father works for Blue Star and so do several of his family's friends. Gecko doesn't care because to Gordon the company is "wreckable" and that it is "all about bucks kid." Gecko has the nerve to ask Bud to "stick around pal because I've got alot to teach you......are you with me."

Bud finally decides that he will wreck Gecko however this is highly unlikely. However Bud does have the ability to put a thorn in Gordons side. Bud plans to have important shareholders "dump" their shares therefore driving the price per share down and causing Gecko to incur losses on his several shares of Blue Star. Although Bud gains personal satisfaction he is arrested by the Securities exchange Commission (governing body of the stock exchange) for conspiracy to commit securities fraud and for violating the insider traders sanction act.

Although Bud had lost his gorgeous blonde, impressive eastside apartment and was learning how to be a player by his mentor Gecko he finally got a lesson in human values the hardway. He lost everything and almost lost a loved one, his father. An important concept is expressed by Buds father "You must create instead of relying on the buying and selling of others." An important lesson is to be learned in this film if one is able to keep the materialistic goods to the side and delve into the values that are so vividly being exploited.

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Reviewed by Anton Karl Kozlovic, Flinders University


  • David Lightman (Matthew Broderick)-Seattle teenager. Uses his home computer to hack into his school's computer, and then into the defense computer WOPR.
  • Jennifer Mack (Ally Sheedy)--Seattle teenager and girlfriend of David. She shares his adventures with him.
  • Professor Falken (John Wood)--WOPR's designer. Lives a hermit's existence after suffering a number of personal crises.
  • John McKittrick (Dabney Coleman)--Head of NORAD defense computer system. He convinces the President to remove the human element from the defense system and give full control to WOPR.
  • WOPR (War Operations Planned Response)--Defense computer. It controls America's nuclear forces and plays games with David.


Directed by John Badham, WarGames opens with two men arriving at NORAD's defense control complex. After passing various security checks, they enter the launch room and become responsible for dispatching the installation's nuclear missiles, suddenly, an alert comes through and World War III is about to commence. One man correctly goes through the launch procedure to the bitter end, but the other refuses to do so. He doubts the possibility of it all and chooses not to condemn millions to the fiery furnace of what could be a mistake--"Screw the procedure. I want someone on the God-damm phone before I kill twenty million people!" We then discover that the launch was only a test run, but the balking officer highlighted an annoying problem-- uncontrollable, sporadic, nuclear impotency. The defense system's equivalent of cancer.

All in all, 22 percent of officers failed the test. So for the sake of efficiency, the President's advisers accept the advice of the computer expert, John McKittrick, to remove the human element from the defense system--"I think we oughta take the men out of the loop." Full control is now given to the WOPR computer located at the Combined Operations Center at Cheyenne.

Next we are introduced to the Seattle teenager, David Lightman, a typical American boy-next-door, and home computer buff. He shows off his computer hacking prowess to his girlfriend Jennifer, by tapping into his school's computer and changing her poor grades. He then instructs his computer to find the programs for a forthcoming range of computer games, and it subsequently locates "Falken's Maze." Unable to get access to it at first, David eventually discovers that Professor Falken was the computer expert who designed the game, and by guessing that he used his dead son's name, Joshua, as the password, he eventually gains access to it. But David has unwittingly tapped into the defense computer WOPR by mistake.

Not knowing this, David opts to play what he thinks is a computer game--"Global Thermonuclear War" and so he advertently sets WOPR to work playing a war game, with David assuming the Russian position for firing missiles at America. Unfortunately, the defense personnel are unaware of David's involvement at first, and so they think it is a real attack! Panic erupts. When TV news broadcasts show that the United States has been put on alert, David has an uneasy feeling and so he tries to stop the game, but WOPR insists on continuing. David's infiltration of WPOR is eventually tracked down and he is subsequently arrested by the F.B.I., which thinks he is working for the Soviets. Unfortunately, he is unable to convince them, or McKittrick, of the truth. The United States prepares to retaliate against Russia.

David cannot stand by and do nothing, so he escapes from the Operations Center by surreptitiously merging with a tour group who happened to be at the Center during the emergency. He eventually joins up with Jennifer, and they both track down Professor Falken, whom David had previously discovered was alive and living a hermit's existence on Goose Island, his personal retreat. Professor Falken is an embittered, troubled man; shattered by the loss of his wife and child, who believes that mankind is doomed to extinction anyway. So he refuses to explain the situation to the war room personnel. However, he later changes his mind. He tracks David and Jennifer down, and all three of them head for the Operations Center, arriving just as it is about to be sealed off.

Although WOPR is showing that Russian missiles are about to strike at any minute, Professor Falken argues that it is just a computer-enhanced hallucination, and he manages to delay the U.S. counter-attack until it is verified that Soviet missiles have actually struck. He tells the general who is about to give the green light to an all out nuclear attact--"General, you are listening to a machine. Do yourself and the whole world a favor and don't act like one." WOPR continues with its war game to the end and after some pyrotechnic screen displays, it concludes that--"The only winning move is not to play." Game over. They now discover that there was no real Russian missile attack. The emergency is ended and everyone is frightfully relieved. McKIttrick shakes Professor Falken's hand and ruffles David's hair. All is right with the world again.


WarGames is an excellent and highly entertaining way to explore: 1) the social and technological effects of the computer revolution, particularly within computer and society courses; and 2) aspects of the nuclear weapons debate, particularly within peace study courses.

Its youth-oreintated focus, and the current contemporary euphoria about computers, means that the film has high intrinsic audience appeal, and yet it can also retain the interest of adults and serious professionals. In either case, WarGames is a good popular culture contribution to any computer activities, as well as nuclear warfare consciousness raising activities.


Care must be taken that WarGames is not treated as a manifesto for computer hacking in real life. Lecturers should take great pains to point out that hacking is both a criminal activity and highly unethical.

The film itself has a number of illogical elements that can spoil an audience's appreciation of the film--such as:

  1. If WOPR is so sophisticated, then how is it that it cannot inform its human masters that it is only playing a game, and thus there is nothing to worry about?;
  2. How is it that the computer cannot be turned off/cleared? This is especially worrisome because if a nuclear attack really occurred while WOPR was playing its game, the U.S. defense system would be paralyzed, apparently for days at a time
  3. Why is it that WOPR can play war games for days on end without the need of a counter-response from Professor Falken (or David)?;
  4. If the authorities can send a helicopter to Goose Island to pick up Professor Falken, then why is it that he, David and Jenny need to go through a wild jeep race to get to the Center before it closes? Surely they could have been flown straight there;
  5. Why must sparks emanate from the control panels, when there is nothing physically wrong with WOPR or the rest of the equipment?

Nevertheless, overlooking these imperfections for the moment, WarGames is definitely an important computer film and nuclear film, and thus a worthwhile addition to the curriculum. As the film reviewer from USA Today, Kenneth R. Hey, advised his readers--"Do yourself a favor and study this film with detached judgment." He was absolutely right.


  1. What is the significance of the title of the film WarGames, as one word instead of two?
  2. What does the film say about the ease, nature, and techniques of computer hacking? Is it plausible?
  3. Of what significance is it that David matches the F.B.I.'s profile of a terrorist/spy?
  4. How was David treated by the various authorities in the film? Should he have been so treated? Was it appropriate considering the seriousness of the problems and the potentially devastating consequences for humanity?
  5. Is David a:
    • a. terrorist/spy;
    • b. criminal;
    • c. vandal;
    • d. troublemaker;
    • e. technological libertarian;
    • f. just having fun; or
    • g. totally innocent? Justify your choice(s).
  6. What is the significance and symbolism of the name WOPR, and of a boy called David who manages to overcome it?
  7. Since the audience strongly identifies with David, has the filmmaker contributed to solving our contemporary problems, or has he exacerbated them? Explain with reference to the nuclear weapons issue and the computer hacking issue.
  8. What attributes do computers encapsulate or symbolize to contemporary audiences? Are these attributes real? Discuss.
  9. What is WOPR telling the audience about:
    • a. the issue of nuclear warfare; and
    • b. its understanding of the difference between reality and games?

    What does this mean for humanity?

  10. Was Professor Falken's solution to his personal problems:
    • a. reasonable;
    • b. morally uplifting; or
    • c. viable, given the circumstances and his professional/ethical responsibilities? Explain.
  11. What is the significance of Professor Falken, as WOPR's designer, advising the general that he is only listening to a machine? And if Professor Falken believes this, should war room commanders put their trust in computers? Discuss.
  12. Comment on the claim that WarGames is both an anti- computer film and an anti-nuclear film.
  13. Is man too machine-dependent for his own good? Discuss.
  14. How does WarGames thematically relate to the following films:
    • a. Frankenstein;
    • b. 2001: A Space Odyssey;
    • c. Fail Safe;
    • d. Dr. Strangelove: and
    • e. Demon Seed?
  15. Discuss the symbolix significance of Professor Falken playing with a model pterodactyl. What does it suggest about mankind's destiny? Could it be true?
  16. What does WarGames say about:
    • a. the achievability of computer security;
    • b. the infallibility of computer technology;
    • c. the believability of computer-generated realities; and
    • d. personal privacy issues?
  17. David's girlfriend Jennifer is not computer literate. What does this say about women and computers? Is it true? Should it be true?
  18. What is the significance of the launch chamber episode at the beginning of the film? Is it plausible? What can we do to prevent it or at least account for it?
  19. Is WarGames a realistic depiction of what could actually happen? What does it mean for us today, as an increasingly computer-dominated society? Discuss with reference to contemporary newspaper accounts of hackers.
  20. What does the actual physical size of WOPR say about the development of computers in the real-world? Illustrate with reference to other examples of cinematic computers.
  21. Of what relevance is it that youths, like David, star in the film, as opposed to older computer users scientists?
  22. What does WarGames say about the role of computers in contemporary education? Why does David do his serious computing at home?
  23. What did Professor Falken try to teach his computers to do? Did WOPR do it? Is this plausible?
  24. Is Professor Falken in any way at fault for:
    • a. leaving the project;
    • b. putting a "backdoor" in WOPR;
    • c. for not closing/removing it before he left the project;
    • d. for not telling the authorities of its existence before he left? Discuss.
  25. Who should we ultimately blame for the problem in WarGames:
    • a. David;
    • b. Professor Falken;
    • c. McKittrick;
    • d. WOPR;
    • e. the President;
    • f. the military;
    • g. society;
    • h. any one else? Why? Why not? How do each of these elements contribute to the specific, and the overall problems highlighted in the film?
  26. Is David an intelligent boy? Compare his school grades with his ability to research and hack. What is the reason for the difference?
  27. Should men act like computers or let computers tell men what to do? Discuss with reference to the implications of artificial intelligence and human control.
  28. In the final analysis, is WarGames an anti-war film or a pro-war film? Explain. Should we:
    • a. give the nuclear game up;
    • b. put humans back into the loop again; or
    • c. get better computers next time? Discuss.
  29. Identify and detail anything illogical you may see about the film, in the plot, in the theme, or in the film- making techniques. Why are they illogical? Suggest corrections or alternatives.
  30. Is David a hero? Should he be? Discuss.

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The Witness

Reviewed by Carol A. Jenkins, Biola University

(Teaching Sociology, Vol 17, 1, January 1989, p.p. 123-124)

The Witness begins with a recently widowed Lancaster County, Pennsylvania Old Order Amish mother and her son leaving the family homestead on a train to visit a sister in Maryland. A connecting train's departure is delayed for three hours. While Rachel and her young son wait for the train, Samuel goes to the men's room, where he "witnesses" the murder of a police officer by two men.

John Book, investigating police officer on the murder case, works with Samuel to identify the alleged murders, who eventually emerge as fellow police narcotics officers. The murder was a way of protecting an "inside" scam of reselling previously confiscated narcotics and pocketing the money. Because of the imminent danger to Samuel, John Book takes Rachel and her son to his sister's house for safe lodging.

Upon returning to his home, John Book is confronted by Detective McFee. A shootout leaves Book wounded and McFee fleeing. Immediately, Book realizes his captain must be involved in the scam for he was the only other officer aware of McFee's identification as the murderer by the Amish boy. Even though Book continues to bleed profusely from the gunshot wound, he drives Rachel and Samuel back to their Lancaster County farm for safety. As he leaves the farm, Book passes out behind the wheel of the car and hits a large birdhouse head-on.

The Lapp family, at Rachel's insistence takes Book in and tends to his wounds until he is strong enough to be independently mobile. When able, Book periodically goes into town to check in with his Philadelphia police partner and, repeatedly, they decide it is too dangerous to return to the city.

The next 20 minutes of the film chronicles the Philadelphia cop turned "plain" interacting with young Samuel, learning how to milk cows, participating in a barn raising, doing various carpentry tasks, and exchanging eye contact with Rachel at almost every conceivable opportunity. When in town, Book's un-Amish behavior with tourists and "English townies" evokes a welcome change of emotional direction for the viewer; an "English" in "plain dress."

Upon learning that his partner coincidentally "died in the line of duty," Book becomes outraged. He knows that his partner was murdered by colleagues, and he prepares to leave the farm to avenge his partner's death. Before dawn, however, Book's accused Philadelphia colleagues break into the Lapp home, looking for Book. The ensuing hunt leaves Fergie dead in the corn silo, McFee shot dead in the barn, and the captain finally giving up and taken into custody by local police. Book succeeds in avenging his partner's murder and the scam.

As the film closes, the viewer sees John Book, the Philadelphia cop, leaving an Old Order Amish family as intact as though it had been a Sunday afternoon visit. Eli's last words to book: "Be careful out there among the English."


For the viewer unfamiliar with Old Order Amish proscription and perspective orientation and behavior, The Witness has entertainment value. If, however, the purpose of viewing the film is to gain insight into Old Order Amish ideology and lifestyle, it has limited instructional value.


Although the scenic views of rural Lancaster County are beautiful, the content of the film does not represent Old Order situational attitudes or behavioral responses accurately. For example: 1) rarely would a single female and son travel unaccompanied outside the community even with the departing salutation, "be careful among the English;" 2) the police officers did not provide an opportunity for Rachel to contact the district bishop or elders before she was taken to the police station and then to a private residence for safe lodging--it is not a woman's place to deal with the English and the boy was too young; (3) an Old Order Amish family would not "harbor" an "outsider" for any length of time--they willingly provide a "hospice" for wayfarers, but in Book's situation, an Old Mennonite family would be called in to help; 4) understanding the Amish reverence for life, and a weapon of any kind, particularly a handgun, to remain in the house would be unacceptable; 5) Rachel's suggestion that an "English" (Book) dress as an "Amish" man for the purpose of deception would be unacceptable; 6) it is inconceivable that in such a short period of time an adult Amish female would willingly reject a value-laden simplistic way of life for the affections of an "English" (e.g., dancing in the barn, appearing naked to John while bathing, intimate exchanges outside the context of marriage, persistent sensual eye contact); and 7) after being warned by Eli of possible shunning by the community, Rachel's outspokenness to the elder Eli ("I am an adult and I will decide") is unacceptable behavior--respect for elders is always acknowledged.

To the average viewer, perhaps these behaviors would be considered commonplace; however, to the Old Order Amish, such behavior is in violation of the Ordinum and grounds for excommunication and shunning by the community.

For pedagogical purposes, an alternative suggestion is offered. A brief and accurate discussion of the Old Order Amish ideology and way of life can be found in McNall's Unordinary Groups (1987). This chapter provides a marvelous foundation for understanding the film The Old Order Amish: A People of Preservation in the 30-minute edited version. John Hostetler's classic writings are the most insightful, perceptive, and sociologically sound.

Segments of the current TV series "Aaron's Way" is also not recommended for classroom instruction by itself. Again, there is entertainment value, but the rate of acculturation illustrated by the Miller family is too extreme and unrealistic. The richness of Amish life is community life; if a family moves, a community moves. Amish community socialization does not prepare "plain folks" to live meaningfully among the 'English" for any prolonged period of time.

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