Gold Movie

Image courtesy of Black Bear Pictures/The Weinstein Company


Delivers Classic McConaughey

| published February 17, 2017 |

By Cameron Dale, Thursday Review contributor

Prospecting for precious metals is fun, rewarding, bank-account fattening, and potentially dangerous. That’s the core story of the movie Gold, starring Matthew McConaughey, Edgar Ramirez, Bruce Greenwood and Bryce Dallas Howard.

Directed by Stephen Gaghan, the film bills itself as based deeply on the wild and strange true story of the infamous Bre-X mining and metals scandals of the early 1990s. In fact, the movie is only loosely connected to the facts of the that now remarkable stock and metals scam. The movie is nevertheless well-executed and well-acted, a handsome and atmospheric film which has—for some inexplicable reason—the look and feel of the late 1970s and early 1980s instead of the early 1990s in which the story takes place. Very clearly much of the movie’s strength rests in McConaughey’s singular performance and screen power, which helps propel this otherwise shaky narrative forward and keeps us interested in the outcome.

In real life, Bre-X was a tiny Canadian-based company which announced in mid-1993 that it had discovered and acquired a substantial gold and mineral cache in the Borneo region of Indonesia. There, deep in rugged mountainous jungles, a small team began clearing the dense growth and dug its first mines. The company posited that there were billions of dollars in gold awaiting extraction, and its stock soared preposterously—from less than 50 cents per share to more than $275 per share in only two years. But amidst a flurry of inaccurate reports, inflated public relations schemes, and wildly overeager investments lay a bizarre truth: there was little—if any—actual gold in the Busang mines of Indonesia.

The illusion of gold had been created through an age-old scheme called “salting,” in which rocks or chunks of metal are sprinkled or laced with infinitesimally small amounts of gold dust derived from river panning or other sources, including—amazingly—gold sanded and shaved off of jewelry obtained in pawn shops and from street vendors. In the case of Bre-X, the scheme involved a particularly sophisticated form of salting which propelled it past various forms of verification. In addition, bribes were surgically administered worldwide to help support the illusion among various regulators, investors, brokers and speculators. Accounts of the “value” of the Busang site were so inflated that it rattled and ricocheted investment prices worldwide.

But the entire operation was largely a scam meant to support nothing more than the rapid inflation of the stock price, which drove the two-room metals firm from a value of a few thousand dollars to over $6 billion, and triggered a contagion of sorts among lots of people who sought to get rich very quickly. In short, it was a Ponzi scheme built entirely upon the fiction of real gold in real vaults, and since none of the company’s investors ever saw with their own eyes the non-glittering reality—trusting instead the lazy regulators and the vague word of marketers and salespersons—almost everyone got injured on the way down. Billions in investments became worthless overnight, including the retirement and pension accounts of tens of thousands of public employees and industrial unions in Canada and the United States.

Indonesian politics may have played a role in the rapid demise of the fakery. As the value of the gold mine and its phony “reserves” rose to staggering heights, and as tens of thousands of people in the U.S. and Canada got “rich” overnight on the back of completely phony metals, Indonesian President Suharto publicly declared that no such high value mining operation could be maintained without some form of enrichment by regional companies, Indonesian firms, and through the investment of other outside developers. Suharto reasonably insisted that Bre-X and its new “parent company” Bresea, sole owners of the mining footprint, open up the operation to others who could lease a slice of the project.

That’s when the scheme began its overnight collapse.

Billions were lost when the gold turned out to be phony. Regulators in Canada, Indonesia and Australia were fired, ousted or jailed. The Toronto Stock Exchange took years to recover. Some precious metals prices in the United States never fully recovered, and some blame the relatively low faith in gold, even now, on the Bre-X scandals. At least two suicides resulted, and one of the company’s protagonists and chief scammer, David Walsh—fled to the Bahamas, where—in 1998—masked heavily armed gunmen invaded his home and threatened to kill him if he did not produce the cash he had allegedly hoarded in a secret vault. He survived the ordeal, only to die of a brain aneurism days later. The disposition of some of his alleged cash hoard remains a mystery decades later.

A dozen major books were written on the scandal, including Fool’s Gold: The Making of a Global Market Fraud by Brian Hutchinson, and Bre-X: Gold Today, Gone Tomorrow, by James Whyte and Vivian Danielson.

Fascinating stuff, with stock and metals implications even to this day. But the movie, Gold, is another animal entirely. Well-crafted, slick and handsome to a fault, the movie nevertheless frequently fictionalizes a story which needed little fiction. Even McConaughey’s character—Kenny Wells—is a loose analog to the real life Walsh. A dozen other central characters are quasi-real or composite characters, a move apparently meant to expedite the telling of a complex tale. Still, one questions why the stranger-than-fiction episode was not tackled head-on—real names, real logos, real events. I can only assume that the film sought to avoid legal entanglements in those countries where litigation is ongoing even today.

For McConaughey, the movie is a perfect vehicle for his ever-improving style and screen charisma. Where his early movies place him in the Block of Wood School of Acting, his skill has measurably grown over the years (see our review of last summer’s Free State of Jones, and last year’s review of Interstellar in Thursday Review). So McConaughey couples charisma and undeniable screen power with a remarkable story to produce a winner, despite a few flaws—including wacky editing and unnecessary time shifts, and equally unnecessary sound problems—and some acey-deucy with the historical facts of a strange and remarkable case.

Dazzling and atmospheric photography by Robert Elswit.

Related Thursday Review articles:

Free State of Jones; Maggie Nichols; Thursday Review; August 5, 2016.

Interstellar; Science, Sci-Fi, and the Humanity Thing; R. Alan Clanton; Thursday Review; November 19, 2014.