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Film Review: Margin Call

Margin Call (2011; Directed by J.C. Chandor)

As the only American narrative film of any note about the 2007-2008 financial crisis, Margin Call carries a heavy symbolic and expository burden. The film is set inside a fictional Wall Street investment bank whose over-leveraged “toxic assets” reach a financial breaking point over the course of a day, necessitating a desperate sell-off that its analysts and executives understand will barely save the company while bankrupting many fellow investors and much of the market with them. No one inside the bank who consults on the decision-making process can claim to be unaware of the consequences: great sums of capital will be lost, with the greatest burden falling on those furthest down the economic food chain, and lives will be ruined (though not their own; the worst that any of them can expect is a golden handshake with a handsome severance parachute). But American capitalism is ever a Darwinian struggle for survival, and the willingness to sacrifice others to save your own skin is one of the most vital adaptations in this dangerous environment, especially at the pinnacle of the pyramid.

It’s near, but not too near, that pinnacle that the fatal leak in the boat is discovered, to mix my metaphors a bit. Mega-smart risk analyst Peter Sullivan (Zachary Quinto) is tipped off about some alarming discrepancies in the company portfolio of securities by his departing boss Eric Dale (Stanley Tucci), a victim of sudden mass layoffs. Poring over the data after hours, Sullivan finds evidence of catastrophic volatility levels that not merely threaten but indeed ensure a catastrophic loss over and above the market capitalization of the entire firm (he’s literally a former rocket scientist, so there isn’t much doubt that he’s wrong in his projections). They’re going down unless immediate action is taken to bring down someone else instead.

This action requires the consultation of most of the company’s braintrust, and the process of assembling them for a meeting in the middle of the night functions like a more sophisticated and hostile inversion of the common caper film trope of “getting the team together”. The head of the trading desk, the alternately confident and brutally honest Will Emerson (Paul Bettany), is brought into the loop first, then the head of the trading floor, Sam Rogers (Kevin Spacey). From there, a rising succession of smug reptiles in expensive suits enter the picture as the discovery goes up the food chain; Demi Moore surfaces as a risk management officer whose warnings were not heeded, and then comes the head of the division, Jared Cohen (Simon Baker, not seeming especially Jewish). He’s one of those coiffed pythons that utterly no one else seems to like, but he’s merely the warmup act, the unhinged Dennis Hopper to Jeremy Irons’ masterful CEO, who descends from the sky in a helicopter and lords over the fateful boardroom confab like Brando’s Kurtz from Apocalypse Now.

Margin Call was the debut feature of writer/director J.C. Chandor, who got a Best Original Screenplay Oscar nomination for his rhythmic, natural script, whose dialogue rolls confidently even when it must explain in great jargon-addled detail. It is reflective of the commonly-conceived popular view of the crisis, its causes, and the nature of its high-powered Wall Street architects. Which is to say that it is strangely ambivalent, caught between moral outrage and admiring, romanticist sympathy for their swashbuckling arrogance in navigating a world of incredible wealth well beyond both the economic reach and cognitive comprehension of society’s rank and file.

Characters voice concerns that the planned firm-salvaging sell-off of assets will have dire results for many ordinary working Americans, and Rogers in particular indicates that he may not go along with the proposed solution out of regard for his conscience (it’s odd but somehow comforting seeing Spacey as a vaguely sympathetic character considering his history of self-possessed schemers and villains, especially recently in House of Cards). His closing post-mortem conversation with Irons’ John Tuld in a white-clothed dining lounge overlooking Manhattan, however, brushes aside petty moral objections with an arrogant sweep of unquestionable dominance. The imperious Irons, so suited to embodying authority figures that no one would dare to cross, beats down even the barest hint of humanity on Spacey’s part, then chews it and spits it out like the superfluous gristle of an ill-prepared steak (not that he’d ever tolerate being served a steak like that). Rogers can but accept the verdict and slink away to his ex-wife’s yard to bury his dead dog.

The scene is a more stark and unforgiving companion to the young and impressionable Leonardo DiCaprio’s meeting with the brash, kooky executive played by Matthew McConaughey in The Wolf of Wall Street, minus the hints of outrageous indulgence, mental imbalance, and ritualistic chanting as motivation for the financial rapine to follow. The message of both scenes is the same: we in high finance take what we want because we are better, and there is no need to apologize or feel guilty or unworthy, because that is how things must be in this capitalist ecosystem. Bettany’s Emerson says something similar, and even has the blinkered gall to bemoan how little money he seems to have despite making millions of dollars per year.

It isn’t untrue that bleeding-heart sympathy for the economic suffering of the masses must seem puny and dismissable to the financial world’s self-styled cowboy titans. The Tulds and Emersons of Wall Street and their equivalents in satelitte offices in places like Hong Kong, the City of London, Frankfurt, and Toronto’s Bay Street are detached from the human consequences of their large-scale shell game and it would be unrealistic to depict them any other way. But doing so in the brash but involving form of a solid cinematic outing (with a discernable theatre influence, to be sure) like Margin Call carries the (certainly unintended) side effect of legitimizing their perspective to a certain extent, it must be said. The human dimension, as critics like to say, is conspicuous in its absence.

Defenders of unfettered capitalism are fond of riposting to its vehement opponents that, despite implications about their inhuman dimensions, corporations are people. Margin Call features plenty of those people, but no human beings. And corporations, at the end of the movie’s long day, invariably come out on top.

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Categories: Current Affairs, Film, Reviews
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