THE STREET WITH NO RULES
Margin Call took my money, not once, but twice. It is rare that a movie can separate me from cold hard cash and it is even rarer that I will pay to watch it again in a real movie theater, rather than a year later in the comfort of my own condo. But Margin Call is that kind of a film—you need to see it twice for the details and the nuances of human behavior. It’s that good.
As someone who donated hard earned tax dollars to the very bad people who live on Wall Street, I have followed the sad fate of my money with obsessive interest. Every book that has been published on the debacle of 2008 is on my Kindle app. Some of these books are very good, such as Michael Lewis’s Boomerang, and others are simply horribly written, such as Andrew Ross Sorkin’s Too Big to Fail. In contrast to the terrible truth of these books, Margin Call is a terrible fiction about terrible people who have done terrible things.
The historical background of Margin Call is too well known for the film to even mention. As the director, J. C. Chandor, stated, the plot could have been placed at any point in time during the period leading up to the Crash of 2008. For years, experts and people with common sense knew that the Wall Street bubble would burst. The smart ones, as Michael Lewis reported in The Big Short, betted on the crash and made money. The protagonists of Margin Call are merely the first out of the door to screw their clients. The firm gets out of the very crooked game they are running on the suckers and runs off with enough money to make a profit out of the nefarious enterprise.
Like other financial enterprises, called “banks” or “investment firms” or “hedge funds,” the company imagined by Chandor, is a thinly veiled version of Merrill Lynch where his father once worked. These “businesses” are simply casinos that are accidentally located on Wall Street and run, not by the official Mob, but by people with MBAs or others with number-based degrees from Ivy League schools, the “legal” mob, in other words. Stocks and bonds are like casino chips or the little balls that rattle around the roulette wheel or cards flipped over by a dealer. These abstract entities, call them what you will, have an equally abstract monetary value and they are deployed in a rigged game where the house always wins. Except, as Margin Call makes clear, the Wall Street “business people” are not nearly as smart as the mob.
The “firm” at the center of Margin Call has no name or perhaps it is the firm that is dares not to speak its name, out of shame. But shame is not present in this perverse universe. Remorse, morality, ethics, introspection, self-awareness, honor, honesty—-all those homey virtues—hover around the edges of the characters in this film, but fail to materialize. All live in fear of the outcome of situations that they themselves have created. The viewer cannot muster much sympathy for these benighted beings, but the film reveals the ruthlessness of the finance business in the opening minutes that demonstrate the heartlessness and lack of “the social contract,” for lack of a better word, that rules Wall Street.
Margin Call opens with a mass firing. An army of those in charge of severance—we saw the cutting ceremonies in George Clooney’s Up in the Air (2009)—files in, carrying bankers’ boxes and marching orders. The reasons for the firing of large numbers of people are vague—“cutting back” and what have you—-and the selection is just as arbitrary. The lesson is that there are winners and losers, just as there are in Las Vegas, but here on Wall Street, losing more personal. In Vegas, you at least get a hotel room and Elvis impersonators; here you get severance pay and the right to leave the building with a box filled with your desk paraphernalia. For those of us who work in the real world, it is not clear why anyone would work in such an environment. The money may be good but what an awful way to make a living: watching computers that show nothing but graphs in nice colors…until the Cutting Crew marches in.
The survivors politely avert their eyes, not to spare the victims but to protect themselves against the inevitable—-whoever you are, you are next. And that is what the rest of the movie is about: who’s next?
Margin Call has an excellent ensemble cast—astonishing, in fact, for a twenty-six year old first time director—and these pros resist the temptation to chew up the scenery. These are a buttoned down macho bunch in coats and ties and the women are especially hard-bitten. No emotions here but watch the excellent acting for the small tell tale signs of who will be sacrificed, who cannot survive and who will thrive and rise. No feelings on display here but listen to the dialogue for the moment when someone gets thrown under the bus and someone moves to the head of the pack. The young survivors of the first firing, Zachery Qunito (Peter Sullivan) and Penn Badgley (Seth Bergman), seem equal at first: they are both quite capable to making sense of the complicated equations bequeathed by the Risk Manager, Stanley Tucci (Eric Dale). But, take note of “Seth’s” white socks and his overgrown out of control hair and then compare him to “Peter’s” perfectly waxed brows and guess who survives the next cut.
At every turn, Paul Bettany (Will Emerson) reveals that his days too are numbered. He is Kevin Spacey’s (Sam Rogers) assistant but he wastes his high salary on hookers and booze and he is past his shelf life, post forty and still holding, still running in place. One more Cut and he will be gone.
“Sam” is a character that passes for “moral” in this world but he needs the money, because, he too, has wasted his salary. “Sam” will do what his masters tell him. It is no accident that Sam spends the film weeping over the death of his dog. These characters are mere underlings who summon up their Overlords when “Eric Dale” is fired and leaves behind a time bomb of an investment scheme, rotten at the heart, on the verge of exploding. And now it is every man (and woman) for him or herself.
Playing the part of Dick Fuld of Lehman Brothers, the place where the Meltdown started in 2008, Jeremy Irons is “John Tuld” who oversees a meeting of the Board in the wee hours of the morning. It is here that the real decisions are made. The two executives who have apparently masterminded the now disastrous scheme are Demi Moore (Sarah Robertson) and Simon Baker (Jared Cohen).
On leave from The Daily Show, Aasif Mandvi (Ramesh Shah) runs the numbers and confirms that “Eric Dale,” who, having been summarily fired, is now understandably missing, is correct in his calculations. The sky is falling. But “Tuld” asks Peter Sullivan to explain the situation. The ball is in his court and the young analyst—awed but poised and certain—rises to the occasion and makes it clear to Jeremy Irons that “the music has stopped.” Paul Bettany and Penn Badgley are silent and have nothing of value to contribute to the meeting. The viewer realizes that Quinto is now a rising star and that Badgley’s character will be fired, long before “Will Emerson” warns him that the axe is falling.
But bigger heads must roll. When Irons turns to the culprits—Moore and Baker—he is not ascribing blame—-not yet—he is demanding solutions. It is Moore who freezes and it is Baker who steps up and recommends a ruthless move—sell everything—that is also the only way of surviving. Although Baker warned her that he was going to double-cross her, Demi Moore made the fatal mistake of believing that this man, known as the “snake,” would stand by her and take the blame with her. The meeting is hardly open before Irons tells Moore that he will have to show her “head” to Wall Street: she will have to take the blame. Why because she lacked the nerve to dump toxic stocks on her colleagues on the Street.
In contrast to Too Big to Fail (2011), which clumsily “explained” the Crash to the audience, Margin Call “explains” the financial crisis in dialogue that is casual and pops up here and there as characters carry on conversations. The gullible public is named and blamed and the Wall Street bankers excuse themselves for their recognized but uncontrollable greed. They are like addicts who won’t stop gobbling up ridiculous salaries for contributing nothing but misery to society until some higher power stops them. There are no higher powers. With all its failings, Too Big to Fail was very accurate in showing that the “Fed” bailout of Wall Street was really the New York Fed saving its cronies by stampeding Congress while the Bush Administration absented itself from the flim-flam job.
Margin Call, based on the experiences that Chandor’s father had working on Wall Street, ends without redemption. “Eric Dale” is finally found and corralled only in order to sweeten his severance package to silence him. He and “Sarah Robertson” end up in a quiet room together, chatting in their foxhole, waiting for their payoffs.
When the character played by Simon Baker came onscreen, in close up, there was a murmur of female appreciation throughout the theater; but, in contrast to his genial and whimsical character on The Mentalist or in Something New (2006), this man never cracks a smile or changes his expression. Gesticulation, wit, vocal gymnastics, imposition of personality—-all of that is the privilege of one man, the boss, Jeremy Irons, who rules through seer force of will.
In the end, the dirty deed is done and done quick. Innocent people are screwed. The nameless firm is now known on the Street as a ruthless player. But it is doubtful that, in this world, the competitors will do anything other than copy the playbook. Margin Call makes it clear that the only rule is that there are no rules.
The Arts Blogger
Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette