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April 18th, 2013 at 10:52 am

The dark hours before the storm: “Margin Call”

Hollywood’s scripts always call for a protagonist. Margin Call has none.

Raymond Alvarez: The film Margin Call has to be regarded as a distorted reflection of reality. Just as Michael Douglas stood before a soon-to-be-fired audience in Oliver Stone’s Wall Street, declared greed good, rationalization has become a mainstay. At the end of the day, we’re just cannon fodder.

 

 

This latest (2011) offering shows unusual and clever artistry – as an Academy Award winner should. How does a director explain what happened on Wall Street in late 2007? What did it look like at the center of the maelstrom? In one scene, a junior analyst emerges from a bathroom stall and approaches one of the firm’s titans who is calmly shaving after a night of plotting. The immaculately dressed man doesn’t flinch when the analyst says, “you’re going to fire me.”

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For a writer/director, this is old hat. How do you explain what few understand to begin with? If you are J.C. Chandor, you don’t. He amplifies drama, not cause.

Picture a young Tom Cruise (Risky Business) desperately trying to keep daddy’s Porsche from rolling into a lake. In Margin Call, the suits would have been pushing at the other end. The film is exceptionally cast: Kevin Spacey, Jeremy Irons and Demi Moore accompanied by Stanley Tucci in a modest role undertaken with his usual aplomb. Zachary Quinto (Star Trek – 2009) plays a young analyst who was attracted from rocket science. “It’s all about numbers, really,” his character allows.

Questioning the math is dead on. Everyone wondered about the financial institutions’ putting trillions of dollars behind the calculations based on math models. Wall Street’s new breed, the “quants” proved to be masterful at building towering fortunes. The problem is they haven’t mastered well enough the driving force of greed.

Time magazine, among others, questioned in the ’90s where it was all going. We have our answer. Trillions of dollars evaporate at the speed of light. Careers are crushed. Fortunes vanished. Lives ruined.

We never see the carnage through Chandor’s lens. Drama builds as we’re taken inside the fictitious firm that is in the throes of a mass firing. An ambitious young analyst subsequently discovers that something is horrendously wrong. In minutes, company executives are flying in.

If you thought the plot seemed to match real life Goldman Sachs before the crash, you have company. Goldman was called before Congress to answer its role in the crisis.

There is a not-small nut of truth in the rationalizing by Wall Street’s minions. If someone didn’t move around all that paper, hedge it, and move it some more, there would not have been all that mortgage money. That, however, is the most damning criticism of all. Even Congress had to deflect criticism on this note. It was all for our own good. Just don’t ask the millions whose mortgages underwater.

There are no fools at the fictitious firm. They know the stakes. They know the consequences. The salient point is firms like these are owned by people “who don’t lose.”

Chandor’s single hero stands on shaky ground, and quickly acquiesces. Kevin Spacey plays these characters perfectly. He is the only one in the room who is opposed to taking the drastic action others are contemplating. For others, their course is plain for all to see. The numbers “just don’t add up.”

This fiction has an almost Shakespearean quality. Underneath the crisp shirts and colorful ties is blood, blood washed by the trappings of a better life. It is their blood that is spared.

The ending is a metaphor. Spacey is seen digging a hole for his dead dog when he is interrupted by whom we assume is his ex-wife. The dog will go into its grave on property that doesn’t belong to the aging veteran of Wall Street. How fitting.

More than a morality tale, this film is illustrative of the speed and the street rules of the financial markets. In the more probing points of the film, the decision to sacrifice others is elevated to a cause. Traders are handed their swords to fall on. They attack with vicious ruthlessness. At day’s end, there is an eerie calm. They are victorious. The king lives.

It’s high art – and too familiar. The tragedy isn’t that young millionaires are thrown out of work. The tragedy is their self-respect can be had so cheaply. They talk of millions as execs fly away with their billions intact.

Chandor leaves us to our thoughts and the sound of Spacey’s shovel working at that cold ground. This is the system. It’s the best we can do. It is, and that certainly means it will happen again.

In recent weeks, Wall Street and real estate investors have been on a tear. In some states, markets are seeing buyer panic again. Canadian and Chinese investors reportedly are behind it. Even Boulder County, Colorado has seen it. Several days of earnest investing doesn’t portend a recession. Nevertheless, one can’t help feeling the digging has begun.

Postscript: In financial circles, “dead dog” often is a reference to a company with poor prospects of recovery.

Raymond Alvarez is an illustrator and programmer. A former newspaper journalist, Raymond is a contributor to Impact Lab and other publications. Raymond’s wife Susan has been a licensed Realtor for a dozen years. She has been in home construction for going on 30 years and currently works as a broker for the long-established PML of Longmont. They have three grown children.  Facebook: BolderRealEstateTeam

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