Monday, October 24, 2011

Movie Review: Margin Call

Margin Call *** ½  
Directed by: J.C. Chandor.
Written by: J.C. Chandor.
Starring: Kevin Spacey (Sam Rogers), Paul Bettany (Will Emerson), Jeremy Irons (John Tuld), Zachary Quinto (Peter Sullivan), Penn Badgley (Seth Bregman), Simon Baker (Jared Cohen), Demi Moore (Sarah Robertson), Stanley Tucci (Eric Dale), Mary McDonnell (Mary Rogers), Aasif Mandvi (Ramesh Shah).

I am currently in the middle of reading Michael Lewis’ excellent book The Big Short, which is about the 2008 financial crisis, caused by failing subprime mortgages, and the few people who saw it coming – and as such made tons of cash by betting on the mortgage bonds to fail, when everyone on Wall Street said they were safe. What becomes clear when reading the book is that anyone with even a rudimentary understanding of finance could have seen the crisis coming years before it hit, and bankrupted so many, and lead to the huge bailout. All anyone had to do to figure it out is look at the actual loans being given. What also becomes clear is that no one wanted to see it coming. They were making millions or billions of dollars because of this market, so why look too closely at it. When the outsiders who bet against the market would ask people inside why they felt they way they did, they never had a good response. Their basic argument is that the market can’t collapse because it would be catastrophic if it did. About that, they were right. I mention all this at the top of my review for the new film Margin Call, because it is in effect about the very people who should have seen the crash coming, and didn’t – because they didn’t want to see it coming.  

Eric Dale (Stanley Tucci) is in charge of risk assessment for a big Wall Street firm, but he – along with 80% of the staff on his floor – are fired one day, so the firm can increase profits. On his way out the door, he gives a flash drive to one of the few employees left, a low ranking underling named Peter Sullivan (Zachary Quinto) and tells him to have a look, but be careful. Sullivan quickly figures out what Dale was looking at, and figures out what is missing in the formulas. What he discovers is that this one floor of the firm – that deals in subprime mortgages – has leveraged themselves so much that the potential losses would be greater than the current value of the entire company. Not only that, but this is no longer a question of if, but when, as it has already started to happen. He goes to his boss Will Emerson (Paul Bettany), who goes to his boss Sam Rogers (Kevin Spacey), who goes to his bosses Jared Cohen and Sarah Robertson (Simon Baker and Demi Moore), who go to the CEO John Tuld (Jeremy Irons), who choppers into the building at 3 am to have an emergency meeting. At every step along the way, the bosses at first don’t believe the numbers are correct – that a junior analyst found something that they didn’t – but they quickly see just how bad things are. Of course, no one really knows what to do, until it gets to Tuld. Whether he actually understands what his business does or not is debatable – he keeps asking for people to explain it to him in “plain English” – but he quickly grasps the ramifications. No matter what they do, they’re going to lose lots and lots of money. But if they dump it all now – even though they know it’s worthless – they may be able to save themselves, while screwing over whoever they sell it to. What do you think they do?

What I liked about the movie is how it shows just how shockingly amoral Wall Street is, and how even that has lost the ability to shock the players in this firm. The first thought on everyone’s mind in the movie is not how this crisis is going to affect the firm they work for, not how it’s going to drag the entire economy of the country down with them, but rather about their own job security – and their bonuses. This is not a movie with good guys and bad guys – because they are all bad. Dale, who knows this is coming, agrees to come back to work the next day – for one day only – so he can make over $100,000 an hour sitting in a waiting room and not warning anyone of the crap they’re selling them. Roberts knows that what they are about to do – and since he’s the head trader, he’s going to be the one who has to do – goes against everything they are supposed to believe in, but he does it anyone. Even after 30 years on Wall Street, he does it because he “needs to the money”. That’s the way it is on Wall Street – you always need the money. When Tuld comes to Robertson, and tells her they have selected her to be the fall guy (and no, it is no coincidence that they pick the one woman in Senior Management), all she can think about is that her package “better be” good. If anything outside of their own, immediate needs comes to mind for anyone, they don’t show it.

Margin Call reminded me of something like David Mamet’s Glengarry Glen Ross, about real estate salesmen who spend a long night trying to get leads, and make sales, until one of them crosses the line into breaking the law. Mamet’s play, and the movie based on it, was shocking profane, and shocking in the way it displays the mind of these salesmen, who see everyone they come in contact with as a mark. The difference between Glengarry Glen Ross and Margin Call is only the scale of the corruption. The performances in the movie all wonderful – I especially liked Paul Bettany, Kevin Spacey, Jeremy Irons and Stanley Tucci in the movie, but really the whole cast does an excellent job. Writer/director J.C. Chandor has crafted an economic movie for our troubled times. This is why people are joining the Occupy Wall Street movement.

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