Mama there’s wolves in the house / Mama they won’t let me out / Mama they’re mating at night / Mama they won’t make nice…
It’s been three years since the financial crisis of 2008, or the Global Recession, the Credit Crunch, or whatever else you might like to call the greatest international economic downturn since the Great Depression. Three years, and still we are struggling mightily to right the ship, as monthly unemployment rates continue to remind us. But do we really understand what happened to us? Do we know what exactly it was that we did wrong?
Films like Michael Moore’s “Capitalism: A Love Story” and the Oscar-winning “Inside Job” sought to answer that question technically, laying the blame at the feet of the major investment banks that played dangerously with sub-prime mortgage securities, and federal deregulation that lowered the consequences of such recklessness. Their arguments, taken up by the more focused members of the Occupy Wall Street movement, seem sound enough to me, though I don’t pretend to understand economics (and am highly suspicious as to whether anyone truly does understand). But the issue of Mortgage Backed Securities and leverage and historical volatility levels really only covers how things went wrong; it does not satisfactorily explain why.
That is a human matter, not a mathematical one, and despite quite a bit of financial jargon flying back and forth, it is the question that “Margin Call,” the stunningly confident feature film debut by J.C. Chandor, is more interested in investigating. We like to see Wall Street executives as their own particularly selfish breed, interested only in their own profit. If we were in their place back in 2008, cry the 99%, we would have made the right choice. We would have served the greater good.
Would we? Ask yourself that question honestly. Look at the entirely plausible scenario that Chandor imagines in “Margin Call:” Eric Dale (Stanley Tucci), a risk assessment executive, is laid off right when he was about to find the data to backup what he had suspected for a long time: the numbers don’t add up anymore, and his firm (not-so-subtly based on Lehman Brothers) is riding for a fall. Dale hands off his project, along with a warning, to Peter Sullivan (Zachary Quinto), a junior employee who also happens to be a rocket scientist (a running “gag” that is actually terrifically unfunny is the fact that Sullivan’s superiors are constantly asking him to explain the problem “in plain English”). Over the course of one night, Sullivan and fellow junior employee Seth Bregman (Penn Badgley) bring their case higher and higher up the corporate ladder, until CEO John Tuld (Jeremy Irons, clearly enjoying himself) makes the fateful decision to sell off all the company’s toxic assets in one day, trashing the company’s reputation and essentially setting off the chaos that would rule the market for months.
Somewhere along the line, surely, someone would disagree with this strategy and go public, for the sake of the world economy? Right? When piles of money are getting thrown around like free t-shirts at a pro basketball game, matters get somewhat complicated. Eric Dale is given a choice: sit in a room and shut up for a day, and earn over $1 million, just like that, or fight the company every day over the next two years over every aspect of his severance pay, including health care. Peter Sullivan is given a choice: walk out on his company, which he now knows to be thoroughly and absolutely ruthless, or take a nice big promotion to move up further in that company. Sarah Robertson (Demi Moore), head of risk, is given a choice: quietly accept to be the company’s scapegoat for the whole debacle and receive a fat severance package, or get publicly trashed, be fired anyway, and receive nothing. Really, there is no choice at all, and who are we to say otherwise?
The hypocrisy of Wall Street is not individual, no matter what we may think of Tuld or his ultra-slick head of securities Jared Cohen (Simon Baker). It is systematic, and as a wonderful speech by senior trader Will Emerson (delivered with perfect disdain and acuity by Paul Bettany) makes clear, implicates us all.
You might have noticed the remarkably star-studded nature of those parenthetical citations (and I haven’t even mentioned Kevin Spacey’s Sam Rogers, arguably the most important character, yet) and wondered, how did a director of commercials and music videos get such a cast for his first feature? The secret probably lies in the fantastic script. Chandor has obviously been studying the manipulative language of David Mamet, and while “Margin Call” may not have quite the same theatrical sizzle of “Glengarry Glen Ross” or “Wag the Dog,” it is no less sharp. A single query of “Really?” or “For who?” can carry more meaning than many writers can summon in an entire scene, especially when put in the capable hands of actors like Irons, Bettany, Baker and Spacey.
From Mamet Chandor also borrows the psuedo-machismo bravado of business: the “principled” stands, the posturing, the hierarchy of power based on salary. Seth in particular constantly obsesses over how much his superiors make, the message pretty clear: it all comes down to the money.
Maybe that’s wrong, but what can we do about it? The cast of “Margin Call” peers out the windows of their building at the looming New York skyline, teeming with “normal people” going about their lives. But “Margin Call” breaks down that barrier between “normal people” and Wall Street. Not a one of us can fathom the implications of our decisions much beyond how they affect us personally; yet we ask Wall Street employees to consider the fate of millions of people with every step they take. But these are human beings with human motivations: Sam Rogers is distracted by the death of his dog; Seth Bregman and Sarah Robertson fear for their jobs; Peter Sullivan, in over his head, can’t decide what’s right any more. Can we?
Now playing in indie theaters.
Verdict: 4 out of 4 stars