the better truth

the better truth

Friday, December 16, 2011

Margin Call (2011)

Stock Movie

“Margin Call” is a feature film that uses the 2008 financial crisis, as its main storyline. The filmmaker is faced with the daunting challenge of translating the arcane skullduggery of the securities industry into a watchable dramatic storyline. The result is an engaging, well acted, feature; no small task given the dearth of decent films about high finance.

The paradigm movie about this topic is probably Oliver Stone’s first “Wall Street”. It is ironic that the scion of a prominent banking family (his father was the “Stone” of the specialist firm Lasker Stone and Stern) would paint such a hollow portrait of the industry. Stone’s work was based on the high-flying 1980s junk bond/LBO kings. Although Michael Douglas captured the arrogance and flamboyance of the times, the industry faded into the background. It was merely stage for decadent sociopath-peacocks to strut. (In the interest of full disclosure I worked as a branch manager for a number of years at a prestigious firm) Wall Street is more complicated than Stone’s cartoon. There are good people. There are bad people. Perhaps most interestingly the industry has a way of making good people into not so good people. It’s not that they’re so bad (that would be dramatic). It’s that they’re so uncomfortably familiar. You and your friends wouldn’t do anything bad for $1,000… but what about $500,000? It’s not an area that is fertile ground for uplifting character studies. Lawyers and doctors roam the land of good and evil. That’s why we love to watch them on TV. But brokers and traders are in the purgatory of pedestrian failings… not even good or bad… just grindstone Joes and Janes trying to make one dollar into two. Whereas the professional classes have their heroes and villains, brokers and investment bankers are somewhat suspect. There are no “good” bankers or traders… just successful/unsuccesful ones.

“Margin Call” inhabits this netherworld of un-dramatic amorality by carefully undoing all the expectations established in the first half hour. The opening shows a typical Wall Street style “downsizing”. Industry outsiders would find the process appalling: your computer phone are immediately turned off while you are handed a box for personal items and escorted off the premises. The audience feels the pathos as a sympathetic soul is given the business. An industry veteran would have known that this harsh practice stems from the fact that a terminated employee could do millions of dollars of damage with a few simple key strokes. Harshness is a given and the analyst’s rage at not being able to use his phone seemed, from an insiders POV, somewhat contrived. But in the realm of storytelling, it works. Our sympathy goes out to him in equal measure to our disdain for his boss; who seems more concerned with the illness of a family pet rather than the plight of hundreds of people who’ve been terminated. One feels the dramatic stage being erected for a classic battle between a “hero” vs. the drones who inhabit “the system”. “Margin Call” might have its flaws but its ability to redraw the war makes it the first film that tackles the essence of Wall Street’s seduction. It’s not us versus them but us versus ourselves.

Kevin Spacey, who appears an archetypal heartless boss, metamorphosizes into a noble sergeant who is fighting a disgraceful war; unfortunately his allegiance is to an entity controlled by a supreme business mogul. The young risk manager who takes the reigns, Zachary Quinto, is more callow technocrat than hero analyst. One senses he might share the fate of Spacey if he has more lunches with Mr. Big; deftly played by Jeremy Irons. The management team is composed of the aggressive, heartless letter-of-the-law types who could rationalize building orphanages on top of nuclear waste dumps. Once again their awfulness is somewhat muted by the actions of the supposed “heroes”. The risk management team leader, who is terminated unjustly after exposing the crisis, falls in line with the junta. He’ll take his payoff and even sit blithely with his heretofore nemesis, Demi Moore, and wait out the storm. It’s not about exposing the truth. It’s about getting paid. In this light, with minions paid very well to do your bidding, how bad is Jeremy Irons? Even Paul Bettany, Spacey’s right hand man, loses his soul by dumping tones of worthless paper on unsuspecting buyers. But once again we are in the world of CAVEAT EMPTOR (Buyer Beware). You don’t trade with your friends – you trade with traders – who are just like you. They would do the same. Trust me they would.

The only character that failed to ring true was the young risk management analyst who makes the first cut but is eventually fired. Penn Badgley gave it his best but the character failed to rise from the crass caricature of an ambitious young yuppie. There are certainly enough horrible young people who enter the business and behave badly on and off the Street. In capturing their essence the challenge is to never pander to a sum of casual clichés. Their appalling, greedy behavior must be their own and not a sum of a widespread perception of heartlessness. But this was a small flaw in an otherwise well-drawn sketch of the business. One must admire the director’s ability to craftily deliver the complicated plot points by “dumbing down” the people in charge. Each supervisor seemed to say “give it too me straight… I’m not smart enough to understand the numbers” – this would be followed by a simple explanation of what was at stake.

It’s an interesting note that the title, “Margin Call”, was never directly explained to the audience. It is the practice of having the lender demanding collateral on a loan that was used to purchase the financial instrument. But that’s boring. “Margin Call” is more dramatic. It sacrificed authenticity for action, but all and all, it works. After a screening you might not know what caused the financial crisis of 2008; but you will look more closely at an expert who explains the situation. After all; they might be selling something. Caveat emptor.

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