Thursday, January 5, 2012

Flick of The Day: Margin Call

The financial crisis which began in the United States in 2008 and whose effect is still being felt throughout the world today, no more so than in Europe has been quite the boon to Hollywood. It was such a shocking collapse, particularly on Wall St that it has so many of the elements for great drama. On the whole though, cinema's various efforts at documenting the crisis have been a hit and miss affair. In terms of documentaries, Charles Ferguson's Inside Job stands out as the best account while the dramatisations have been a poor lot, ranging from the competent Too Big to Fail to the downright awful Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps. It is a delight then to see an independent film which is almost pitch perfect in its handling of what is a great story, today's flick of the day is Margin Call.
Directed by newcomer J.C. Chandor, Margin Call is set in an unnamed American investment bank just before the crisis begins to take shape documenting a 36 hour before a collapse. As the film opens, junior analysts Seth played by Penn Badgley and Peter played by an excellent Zachary Quinto are chatting to senior salesman Will Emerson, played by Paul Bettany in a big swinging dick mode while a dreaded Human Resources team walk the floor giving people the dreaded tap on the shoulder. One of those removed is Seth and Peter's boss Eric, played by the always excellent Stanley Tucci. Eric is to say the least surprised and angry about losing his job not least because he believes he has stumbled across something damaging on the companies books. Before he is removed from the building, he passes a USB key to Peter and asks him to investigate this further. Later that night, the eager beaver takes a look and realises that the bank is in serious trouble with Eric's model predicting that unless they shed some decidedly dodgy assets they will go bust. Panicked, Peter calls Seth and Will back into the office and before long his analysis is in the hands of Will's boss Sam, played by Kevin Spacey, channelling his inner Gordon Gekko. As the night wears on and the bank moves into crisis mode, the information moves up the chain of command to executives played by Simon Baker, Demi Moore and a scene stealing turn by Jeremy Irons. Each of them is left with a choice, do they attempt to get out now or go down fighting?
The really interesting aspect of this film is that it doesn't focus on the why? element of the financial crisis as has been the case in other films. This means that the audience is never bombarded with financial lingo and terminology. In fact, the problems are never explained to any great degree. We are merely treated to Bettany, Spacey et al looking shocked at a computer screen or a a piece of paper. It can be over done but this allows the film to focus on the moral questions of the banker's actions. Ultimately it boils down to will they choose to dump these assets on their clients and counterparties the next morning as the markets open? This is the real drama of the piece, how low will you go?

John Tuld: So you think we might have put a few people out of business today. That its all for naught. You've been doing that everyday for almost forty years Sam. And if this is all for naught then so is everything out there. Its just money; its made up. Pieces of paper with pictures on it so we don't have to kill each other just to get something to eat. It's not wrong. And it's certainly no different today than its ever been. 1637, 1797, 1819, 37, 57, 84, 1901, 07, 29, 1937, 1974, 1987-Jesus, didn't that fuck up me up good-92, 97, 2000 and whatever we want to call this. It's all just the same thing over and over; we can't help ourselves. And you and I can't control it, or stop it, or even slow it. Or even ever-so-slightly alter it. We just react. And we make a lot money if we get it right. And we get left by the side of the side of the road if we get it wrong. And there have always been and there always will be the same percentage of winners and losers. Happy foxes and sad sacks. Fat cats and starving dogs in this world. Yeah, there may be more of us today than there's ever been. But the percentages-they stay exactly the same. 

Very loosely modelled on the demise of Lehman Brothers, it really could have been about any bank and there is much to enjoy if you like to see arrogant bankers speculating about each other's salary and sneering at the general public for their lack of understanding of the financial Armageddon about to hit.

Seth Bregman: Did you really make two and half million bucks last year? 
Will Emerson: Yeah... I did. 
Peter Sullivan: What do you do with all that money? 
Will Emerson: I don't know really. It goes pretty quick. 
Will Emerson: Well the tax man takes half of it up front. So now you got what... million and a quarter. Mortgage grabs another 300K, I gave 150 to my parents to live off, so now you got what? 
Peter Sullivan: Eight hundred. 
Will Emerson: I bought two cars last year for 150 total. Probably another 100 eating... 25 on clothes, put 400 away for a rainy day... 
Seth Bregman: Smart. 
Will Emerson: And what's that? 
Peter Sullivan: 125 left. 
Will Emerson: I spent 76,520 dollars on booze, dancers, and whores. 
Peter Sullivan: 76,520? 
Will Emerson: Yeah, kinda shocked me, although I was able to write most of it off as an entertainment expense!

A fine drama, this is a promising d├ębut from Chandor and he makes great use of an ensemble cast. It doesn't dwell on the causes of the crisis and the wider issues therein but concentrates on the human drama and is all the better for it. The back biting and infighting as the firm goes through its long night of the soul is entertaining and compelling viewing.

No comments:

Post a Comment

Follow by Email