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Margin Call (2011)

Margin Call (2011) is my kind of film. In fact, I would go further and confess liking anything that manages to combine intelligence with the more general dramatic stereotypes. In this case, we’ve had decades of office scenarios in which our cast of stalwarts looks around the room. “Holy shit (the use of Batman’s name is optional), what we gonna do now?” is the usual question blurted out by the least significant member of the team. Grizzled heads shake. There are close-ups on eyes as they shade from horizon-focus to steely determination. They nod at each other in silent confirmation of the strategy. “Let’s get this thing done!” declaims the Boss and they all hit their desks with manic enthusiasm for their thing, whatever it may be. Well, in the proverbial nutshell, that captures the plot of this Hollywood epic. Yes, I know we’re only supposed to use “epic” to describe some brainless adventure film featuring heroes (now of both sexes) with rippling muscles and optional explosions (even in classical mythology, they knew how to blow stuff up). But this is as tense and exciting a film as you could want to see, assuming you like intelligent drama.

Kevin Spacey: both his dog and something else dies

 

I can imagine swathes of people emerging from cinemas around the world, their brains numb with boredom because all people did onscreen was talk. Most of the time, this was done without anyone raising their voices. Despite the tendency to panic and throw themselves of tall buildings, everyone remained calm and got on with their jobs as if this was another day at the office. Yet, when you look at the real world and see what happened when Wall Street almost melted down in September 2008, you can see how a small group of lemmings might feel if they suddenly realised they were standing on the edge of a cliff.

Zachary Quinto as a rocket scientist with great eyebrows

 

This vision of financial Armageddon was triggered by Eric Dale (Stanley Tucci) the senior risk manager of a large financial organisation. He’s been quietly working his way through some historical data but not connecting up all the dots. As the organisation is downsized, he’s escorted out of the building but, in the lift lobby, he gives a file to Peter Sullivan (Zachary Quinto), a young rocket scientist turned risk manager. Curious, young Peter crunches the numbers and comes up with a picture of the cliff. He calls his boss Will Emerson (Paul Bettany) who calls his boss Sam Rogers (Kevin Spacey) who calls his boss Jared Cohen (Simon Baker) who puts in the final call to the überboss John Tuld (Jeremy Irons). In the midst of this, Demi Moore appears as the senior officer who dismissed Eric Dale. So, in the space of a few minutes, you find yourself watching some of the most watchable actors on the planet. At this point, we need to say a few words in praise of J C Chandor who both wrote the script and directed. This is a “new” director who has signed a deal with Warner Brothers for two pictures. This is his first film.

 

I can imagine the excitement the actors must have felt when they received scripts. The news suggests there was a queue of talent lining up to compete for these parts. When you see this final cast list, you realise something strange is going on with seasoned professionals all wanting to work on a first picture. Everyone wants a meaty part that allows them to act — particularly Demi Moore who’s not in this film because of her looks.

Demi Moore allowed the chance to prove she can act

 

So, as politicians like to ask, “Where’s the beef?” Let’s start with a simple statement. This is not an apologia for the banking industry. While it doesn’t go out of its way to condemn, it equally doesn’t show the individuals or their role in society in a good light. Nevertheless, it does cunningly explain why we tolerate this excessive greed and conspire with Wall Street, the Square Mile, and their shadows around the world. Think of it this way. Politicians have encouraged a desire in us to own our own homes. Marketers press us to spend our money on their clients’ goods and services. So we all want mortgages, loans for our cars and other “necessities”, and credit cards that extract money from ATMs like there’s no tomorrow. It doesn’t suit us to look behind the curtain to find the Wizard is a pimply youth who spends tens of thousands of his bonus on hookers. So long as the money keeps on flowing, we’re more than happy to turn a blind eye to excesses. Indeed, we’re likely to be somewhat upset during times of obvious prosperity, if banks and finance companies put barriers in our way, e.g. demanding proof of income or that we provide collateral with a provable minimum value. In our entitlement culture, we expect to be given free access to what we want. When the economic worm turns and we find we can’t afford to repay all these loans, the bankers become the scum of the Earth for facilitating our greed.

Jeremy Irons is outstanding when making the hard decisions

 

One line captures the quality of the decision at issue in this film. If a fire in a theatre is anticipated, does anyone blame the first one who runs out of the door? Should there be no fire, the world laughs at the first for unnecessary worry. Should there be a fire and the first to react is not responsible for causing it, why should the world judge them harshly? Well, in this instance, the only solution to this particular corporation’s problem is to sell all its dodgy assets before the world catches on. That means no-one will trust you again (well, until they’ve forgotten this crisis and need you to trade with). But the decision to sell without shouting “fire” is going to cause a lot of short-term damage. You can salve your conscience as a seller because everyone else is a willing buyer. If they can’t smell smoke, that’s their problem. More importantly, you are suddenly going to have a big cash fund and can cherry pick from all the fire sales held by the others without foresight. Better still, you may even be able to afford buying a bank or another financial corporation in distress. If your financial model is correctly predicting a cliff, you could end up richer in the long term.

Stanley Tucci — we all need risk managers like this

 

I was fascinated by the discussion and mesmerised by the performances. Kevin Spacey and Jeremy Irons are outstanding. Everyone else is merely excellent. Although financial catastrophes come along quite regularly, it’s important to have films like this to focus our attention and persuade us to think about what happened. Sadly, we’re all like Aesop’s grasshopper and have short-term memories. As soon as the credit tap gets turned back on, we’ll all no doubt rush out to borrow again. But this film should give us pause for thought. As to the anonymous corporation’s decision to sell, this is financial Darwinism. It may not be the survival of the fittest, but rather the survival of the early bird. As a final thought, the nearest comparison in subject matter is Oliver Stone’s Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps. Whereas that failed, Margin Call delivers “big time”. For those who like films without explosions, this is a must-see.

 

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