Filmlab: Best finance movies of all time – 1. Margin Call
The financial industry is so bafflingly complex and rife with moral corruption, it’s small wonder that a lot of the movies attempting to grapple with its intricacies (see most of the other entries in this top ten) do so by fixating on the rampant criminality frequently associated with the profit-promulgating schemes and dreams of its myriad players. But not Margin Call. JC Chandor’s remarkable debut feature about a fictionalised global investment firm waking up to the consequences of its lucrative but decadent investment strategy outstrips them all by coolly reflecting one simple, horrific truth: many of the destructive business practices that brought about the financial crisis – that bring about every financial crisis – are entirely legit and happen with our tacit complicity.
Set over 36 hours in the life of a Wall Street firm that’s been trading for more than a century, Margin Call (which came out in 2011) begins in distinct party-over mode, with the sight of human-resources specialists facilitating a shoulder-tapping cull of corporate employees before the day’s business has even begun. Although the action is never specifically time-stamped, the film’s ominous dialogue and imagery (especially the shimmering calm-before-the-storm shots of lower Manhattan) leave us in little doubt that the 2008 banking crisis is on its way – and right quick too. Indeed, the empty live-to-fight-another-day platitudes that Kevin Spacey’s soul-sick executive delivers to the remaining traders belie the fact that the real damage has already been done: the firm’s rampant profiteering from mortgage-backed securities has exposed it to so much risk that a slight dip in the markets could, at any moment, result in losses greater than the current value of the company.
The film’s brilliance is the way Chandor depicts the gradual revelation of this news in the style of an apocalyptic horror thriller. From the moment a young analyst (Zachary Quinto) figures out that the value-at-risk model used by the firm for its entire trading operation has been wrong – a red-flag raised by his recently fired boss (Stanley Tucci) – the film’s protagonists become the first inhabitants of a ruinous new future, one of their own making, but also one that they know the rest of the world will soon have to endure as well. Survival thus comes down to their willingness to use this brief window of opportunity to make a drastic pre-emptive strike on their own industry, sacrificing a chunk of the vast profits they’ve been reaping so that they can come out the other side, adapt to this new reality and figure out a way to make money from what they’ve done.
As the firm’s ruthlessly practical CEO (a wonderfully blunt Jeremy Irons) puts it: “There are three ways to make money in this business: be first, be smarter or cheat.” Since he doesn’t cheat and doesn’t consider himself particularly smart – at one point he implores Quinto’s character to explain the situation to him “as you might to a young child, or a golden retriever” – the easiest thing to be is first. He knows the music has stopped and doesn’t want to be left holding “the biggest bag of odorous excrement ever assembled in the history of capitalism.” He also knows that if you’re the first out the door it’s not called panicking, so he has no qualms about clearing all the debt by legally selling worthless products to willing buyers at a fair market price before the aforementioned excrement hits the fan. The titular margin call is something their competitors will have to face – not them.
What makes this even more compellingly chilling, though, is that none of the characters are presented as heroes or villains – they’re just morally flawed, ethically conflicted human beings whose own damnation is enhanced by the lack of judgment the film casts upon them. Like the “ordinary people” Paul Bettany’s mid-level broker dismisses as hypocrites for pretending to have no idea how guys like him tip the scales in their favour so they can live beyond their means, they’re all part of a system in which “you learn to spend what’s in your pocket”. No amount of money is ever really enough, in other words. Consequently, no matter how idealistic they might once have been, how necessary they’ve convinced themselves their skills are, or how much their conscience may have been awakened after decades spent participating in a ruthless system no longer tethered to reality, once they’ve bought in, they can never really cash out. And neither, suggests the film, can we. The dance never ends, even when the music does.
Alistair Harkness, Film Critic, The Scotsman, 12 September 2014