Gold (2016)

*. “Inspired by true events.” And this time that’s a claim that actually means something.
*. The story it’s based on is the Bre-X scandal. Bre-X was a Canadian mining company that falsified assay results to make it seem like it had hit the mother lode in Indonesia. The results had been “salted” however and after a dizzying rise in its stock the company went bankrupt in 1997. I actually followed the case pretty closely at the time and one of my first assignments as a book reviewer was The Bre-X Fraud, an instant book on the whole affair written by a pair of financial reporters.
*. Gold sticks pretty close to the Bre-X story, only changing the names and making it an American company. Kenny Wells is David Walsh and Michael Acosta is a combination of John Felderhof and Michael de Guzman. As a business story I thought Bre-X said a lot about the culture of the time. Here’s part of what I said in my review: “So many aspects of the case seem to define the ’90s: the creation of fantastic wealth almost by accident, the complete triumph of hype over substance, the fact that so many ‘experts’ (particularly among the financial community) never had any idea what they were talking about, and, finally, the way the principals, now luxuriating in the Caribbean, have since cast themselves as victims and dupes so as to invite sympathy rather than contempt.”
*. To bring the story up to date, after a decade spent in the courts no criminal liability was found and the money had nearly all disappeared.
*. I begin by mentioning all this background because it’s not brought up anywhere in the supplementary material on the DVD. I don’t recall director Stephen Gaghan even mentioning Bre-X once on the commentary. Presumably this was for legal reasons, but since the connection is so obvious, and was pointed out in all the reviews, there was no secret.
*. What makes this reticence even more puzzling is the fact that Gold is a remarkably positive presentation of those responsible for the Bre-X meltdown. The principals here aren’t fraudsters but dreamers, chasing the big strike. Their dreams were a form of magical thinking taking on the coloration of the gospel of wealth: name it and claim it. What’s more, they are men with a social conscience (concerned for family members as well as native tribes), not to mention hard-drinking, hard-working roughnecks who aren’t afraid to get their hands dirty (either in the mud or in politics). We see them putting everything on the line: not just their money but their lives. How can you call them confidence men?
*. You can’t. And so the movie points the finger of blame elsewhere. Specifically (or really more generally) it indicts the blind greed of the investment community. Wilfully blind greed, that is. “We weren’t fooled,” one expert testifies near the end. “We didn’t look.” And why didn’t they look? Because, as Wells declares, they didn’t want to know. They were making money. People made a lot of money out of Bre-X. People made a lot of money out of Enron. Ignorance can be not only bliss but lucrative.
*. All of this may be true to the facts of the case, and probably is, but I have two problems with the way it’s presented here. In the first place it makes the target of blame an industry that little time is spent describing. Second, it lets Wells and Acosta off the hook. Despite the fact that they were the ones who were running the scam they are presented sympathetically. Just two guys who found themselves out of their depth.
*. I don’t like this. I don’t like Wells and Acosta and have no sympathy for them. I don’t like the way the film presents their only crime as being caught. It even waffles on the question of whether Wells knew what was going on. I suppose — and I just suppose — that it’s possible to read the ending as ambiguous, and that perhaps it’s telling us that Wells and Acosta were in cahoots all along. But otherwise it seems pretty much a whitewash and tonally incorrect as well. All is forgiven and Wells is rich!
*. For what it’s worth, on the commentary Gaghan says the ending is ambiguous because the money is dirty, not because of any suggestion that the two friends were working together.
*. I haven’t said much about the movie itself. It wasn’t well received, though Matthew McConaughey’s performance and physical transformation were praised. He’s very good, but stuck playing a character we can’t believe in. An honest con-man? A cynical dreamer? He doesn’t add up.
*. One point stands out in a negative way. The playlist struck me as wrong throughout. It’s not that I didn’t like the music, or that it was wrong for the period. I just thought it didn’t set the mood or otherwise represent or enhance what the film was trying to say. I don’t usually mention such matters, but that only makes the fact that I noticed it here, and kept noticing it everytime a new song got cued up, even more telling.
*. I keep coming back to this being the Bre-X story that wasn’t. The filmmakers really needed to take these people by the throat and give them a good shake and they didn’t. Instead they opted for what is, finally, a sentimental tale of friendship between two dreamers. I guess they thought this would make the movie more commercially palatable, but it really put me off.

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