“Way Out There in the Blue”
At the ending “Requiem” of Arthur Miller’s The Death of a Salesman (1949), Willy Loman’s neighbor, Charley delivers one of the most iconic statements on the American Dream in all of literature: “Nobody dast blame this man. You don’t understand: Willy was a salesman. And for a salesman, there is no rock bottom to the life. He don’t put a bolt to a nut, he don’t tell you the law or give you medicine. He’s a man way out there in the blue, riding on a smile and a shoeshine.” The beginning of Stephen Gaghan’s film, Gold (2016) invokes this theatrical moment. Kenny Wells, Jr. (Matthew McConaughey) stands in his father’s office, the headquarters of their struggling mining company. Kenny Wells, Sr. (Craig T. Nelson) looks out the window and dreams of “blue sky.” It is the last we see of the father; off-screen, he drops dead of a heart attack bringing groceries home to his wife in his modest home.
The son spends the rest of his life attempting to keep his father’s dream alive, to build a mining company to honor his paternal legacy. In a way that wouldn’t have seemed possible, Gold argues that Arthur Miller was not being pessimistic enough to indict the failure of the American Dream’s possibilities by the end of the century. Gold reconstructs the true story of the biggest mining scandal in history: the 1993 Bre-X fraud involved the company inflating its stock price by salting core samples taken on the island of Borneo in Indonesia, falsely leading Canadian investors into thinking the company was sitting on the largest gold mine in history. On the recommendation of geologist John Felderhof (in the film, the character Michael Acosta played by Edgar Ramirez), David Walsh (Gold’s Kenny Wells, Jr.) began digging for gold on Borneo. By the time the scandal had unraveled in the late 1990s, investors had been defrauded of millions of dollars, and no gold was ever produced from the mine.
The narrative of Gold sculpts this crime story into a series of plot reversals all swirling around the Oedipal struggle of Kenny Wells. In a stunning performance of ugliness, McConaughey revels in his balding head and fat beer gut, often standing drunk and naked for us to contemplate his status as a grand loser. At the Indonesian mine at the beginning of the film, he contracts malaria and almost dies. When Wells awakens, sweaty and disgusting, from his delusional state, Acosta reports that he has found gold, and that they will split the vast wealth 50/50. Wells returns home a rich man, guiding his father’s company onto the New York Stock Exchange, causing his formerly penny stock to reach upwards into the range of hundreds of dollars per share.
Kenny’s working-class wife, Kay (Bryce Dallas Howard), the only redeemable character in the entire film, warns him that the New York power brokers will eat him alive. However, in his hubris, Kenny refuses to listen to her. Indeed, Mark Hancock (Bruce Greenwood), in charge of a multinational conglomerate modeled on the real-life Freeport McMoRan, one of the most corrupt strip mining corporations in history, pays off the Suharto government and steals Kenny’s mine out from under him.
However, the film’s plot has not even begun to finalize its pessimistic turns of the screw. Kenny travels to Indonesia and woos the dictator Suharto’s son, allowing him to reclaim the rights to the mine, squeezing the giant corporation out of any future profits. At this point, Kenny is awarded the most prestigious award in mining, the golden pick. In his acceptance speech, Kenny pays homage to his father, but also to Arthur Miller, as he declares the importance of the physical act of mining ore out of the Earth with one’s bare hands. The moment is bleaker than even Miller could have conjured. Wells has just gotten into bed with the dictator Suharto, responsible for overthrowing the popular Leftist revolutionary leader of Indonesia, Sukarno in the late 1960s. Kenny has put the making of profit above all else, without one thought about the people of Indonesia, for centuries destroyed by Western imperialism.
And still the film is not finished with its dark reversals. As the scandal is revealed, Kenny is interviewed by the FBI, who can find no evidence of his complicity with Acosta’s salting of the core samples. We see Acosta pushed out of an Indonesia military helicopter, after having absconded with $164 million in ill-gotten gains. The FBI sets Wells free, and he reunites with Kay. She gives him the mail which has been accumulating in his absence. He opens a letter from Acosta, which contains a check from a Gibraltar bank for $82 million, with a note written on a napkin promising Wells half of the profits from their mine. The film ends with Wells a rich man. Was he in cahoots with Acosta all along, or was his geologist partner working alone?
We are left to wonder, but either way, Wells has become that which his speech disdained, those who profit on the work of others’ hands. Unlike Willy Loman, Acosta and Kenny Sr., Wells ends the film with a life of blue skies ahead of him, having left behind the rainy, malaria-infested island of Borneo. But not one ounce of gold has been produced by these filthy hands. In the era of Donald Trump’s kleptocracy, Gold is a film that transcends Arthur Miller: not only has the American Dream been murdered off, it has been ground into the dust, to blow away into the wind. The Treasure of the Sierra Madre has become the plunder of our very national soul.