Historic America Reviews

Gold Glitters

Greed and obsession collide in Gold (2016), a gritty morality tale set in 1980s Nevada, Wall Street, and Indonesia. Matthew McConaughey plays Kenny Wells, a prospector desperate for a lucky break. He teams up with geologist Michael Acosta (Edgar Ramírez), and together they descend into the uncharted jungles of Indonesia hoping to find one big score. This poorly-advertised film almost escaped my notice, until I saw it playing at my local theater. I’m glad I took a chance on it. Gold is a solid film and surprisingly entertaining. Matthew McConaughey disappears into the role, achieving absolute rock bottom in body and spirit.

Gold is loosely based on a true story. In 1995, a small Canadian mining company called Bre-X, owned by David Walsh, claimed to find a massive gold deposit deep in the Indonesian jungle on the Island of Borneo, near the Busang River. Filipino geologist Michael de Guzman and John Felderhof convinced Walsh to invest $80,000 to purchase and develop the gold mine.

In 1997, Bre-X collapsed and its shares became worthless in one of the biggest stock scandals in Canadian history. On March 19, 1997, de Guzman committed suicide by jumping from a helicopter in Busang, Indonesia. An independent investigation of core samples from the mine determined de Guzman had been “salting” the samples with gold flakes, some from his own wedding ring. Walsh died of a brain aneurysm in the Bahamas in 1998, and in 2007, Felderhof was acquitted of securities charges. The scandal cost investors an estimated $3 billion.

Gold follows Nevada prospector Kenny Wells, who inherited his father’s company, Washoe Mining, in the early 1980s. Stress-induced alcoholism caused by the economic downturn leads him to sell the last of his jewelry and fly to Indonesia to meet geologist Michael Acosta. There he endures hardship and survives malaria. When he emerges from the illness, Acosta tells him he made what might be the largest gold discovery in history.

Enter Mark Hancock (Bruce Greenwood) and the Wall Street tycoons who try to wrest control of the mine from Wells and Acosta. Wells refuses to budge, saying, “If you sell your dream, what do you have left?” Meanwhile, the overnight success destroys his relationship with longtime girlfriend Kay (Bryce Dallas Howard) and strains his friendship with Acosta.

Just before the fraud is revealed, Michael Acosta dumps his shares and disappears, leaving Wells to pick up the pieces and deal with angry investors and the FBI. FBI Agent Paul Jennings (Toby Kebbell) tells Wells that Acosta’s body was found, eaten by wild boars, in the Indonesian jungle. I won’t spoil the rest, suffice to say, the movie leaves Acosta’s death open to interpretation.

Directed by Stephen Gaghan, writer of Syriana (2005), Traffic (2000), and Havoc (2005), Gold looks and feels like American Hustle (2013) and The Wolf of Wall Street (2013), but a little more down-to-earth. Kenny Wells is believable and flawed. McConaughey sells him to the audience. We want his dream to come true as desperately as he does. It’s not about the money, he argues, it’s about the gold. By finding the mine and saving his family business, he will prove to himself and his long-departed father he’s not a failure. Who doesn’t understand that kind of motivation?

When I reviewed Patriots Day (2016), I criticized it for playing a little loose with the facts. After all, it was trying to dramatically portray actual events–events most of us watched unfold on television. Doesn’t Gold suffer from the same problem? Not really. Although it’s marketed as, “based on a too good to be true story,” Gold never claims to be retelling history. Although there are times when it blurs that line, the characters are fictional, the company is fictional, the Wall Street tycoons are fictional. In that regard, it is more like American Hustle than The Wolf of Wall Street. While the Bre-X scandal rocked Canada, most Americans have probably never heard of it.

In fact, screenwriters Patrick Massett and John Zinman were inspired to write the script after Massett saw an episode about the Bre-X scandal on a crime show. What seemed like a good idea for a movie turned into a screenplay inspired by, but not entirely based on, true events.

Some critics have unfairly dismissed Gold as lackluster and uninspired. Granted, it’s not a huge Hollywood production, but it has heart. Bryce Dallas Howard gives a good performance as Kenny Wells’ girlfriend Kay, who seems enamored with Wells’ enormous dreams but ultimately just wants to live a simple, quiet life. Though it flew under the radar, the film grossed $3.47 million in its opening weekend. It’s definitely the best movie I’ve seen so far this year.

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