Film club: Margin Call

Hannah Langworth sees a film trying to make a drama out of the financial crisis

Margin Call

J.C. Chandor

2011

Elevator doors shut on a departing character, his final words: "Be careful!" The backdrop varies from flickering screens surrounded by darkness to fluorescent lights. Characters alternate between huddling together in claustrophobic rooms, and getting picked off individually. Throughout, the audience feels a clock ticking.

But this film is no horror movie in the conventional sense. Margin Call, a fictionalised version of real-life events in a Wall Street investment bank in the run-up to the financial crisis, draws its thrills and spills from the everyday trials of office life - poorly-made decisions, personal conflicts, and deadlines approaching much too quickly.

The plot tells a workplace story not so much of any particular employee as of a piece of data. Stanley Tucci's risk manager creates a mathematical model which reveals the startling level of risk to which the bank is exposed through its trading in financial products constructed from bundles of subprime mortgages. He passes his model on a memory stick to an associate as he leaves the building having been, in an act of spectacular mismanagement, fired that morning as part of the bank's latest round of redundancies. The associate takes a look, doesn't like what he sees, and from there the information is rapidly escalated through the bank's hierarchy, whose figures are played by a galaxy of big-ish Hollywood names, including Demi Moore and Kevin Spacey. It eventually reaches the bank's senior partner (Jeremy Irons) who decides to liquidise the bank's position in mortgage-backed securities, risking both the professional reputations - and careers - of its traders, and the stability of the market as a whole.

These kinds of events on Wall Street and in the City in 2007 and 2008 had an explosive impact on the banking world - and later the real economy. However, despite some of the trappings of a slasher flick or Washington-set thriller - and some of their portentousness - the film ultimately resists the temptation to sensationalise and instead settles most often on the mundane details of the bank's working environment. Mixed in with New York's vertiginous skyline and its glamorous bars, there are countless shots of gum chewing, desktop ephemera and corporate bathrooms. A particularly distinctive scene sees a silent cleaner, together with a trolleyful of colourful products, sandwiched between Demi Moore's chief risk officer and Simon Baker's division head while they discuss how to deal with the mess they've helped create.

The film's use of the banal has its advantages. It makes it feel like the events portrayed might just have happened that way in real life. And there's a grown-up attitude taken towards bankers; here they're presented neither as masters of the universe or villains, but as ordinary people who are flawed, just like the rest of us. The dying - and, by the end of the film, dead - dog owned by Kevin Spacey's character is not there as a bid for sympathy or a dreadful portent, but just as another victim of life's inevitable and arbitrary swings of fortune.

However, at times the film's matter-of-fact tone risks trivialising its subject - and its significant economic consequences. As the plot nears its trading frenzy climax, many a gnomic and, it appears, potentially significant pronouncement is made: "I guess someone upstairs really likes you"; "There didn't seem much of a choice - there never is"; and a lengthy and mysterious anecdotal cul-de-sac beginning: "I built a bridge once". But they all feel somewhat bathetic spliced with malfunctioning phones, inedible meals, and endless expensive-looking soft furnishings.

A nagging sense that the actors don't really know what the technical terms in the lines they're uttering mean (which they don't, of course) also makes the film feel flimsy. And the extent to which events have been dumbed down to suit Hollywood means that it verges on the patronising. The corporate crisis prompted by a single bottom line number is a much over-used movie cliché that gets wheeled out again here, and Irons gets the film's best and funniest line when he asks the bank's wunderkind whistleblower to "Speak as you might to a young child, or a golden retriever", a clunky device to get the state of affairs explained in "plain English" for the benefit of - it's presumed - financially illiterate moviegoers.

But perhaps there is some greater import to Irons's request. After all, knowledge vacuums in the upper echelons of financial institutions - which would indeed be funny if they weren't so lethal - were arguably a key cause of the financial crisis. In this sense, the film makes a useful point. And by highlighting the startling intelligence of some of those working in finance alongside others' extreme desire for material and social influence, the film in places starts to say some interesting things about the relationship of knowledge and power.

But do these observations make it a good movie? While watching this film, I sometimes yearned for Godzilla to swish through the Manhattan vistas, or for a bloody zombie to emerge, angry and dripping, behind one of the glass walls of the bank's Wall Street palace to perk up one of the more earnest meetings. I suppose Margin Call could teach those thinking about a career in finance some helpful lessons: what an investment bank's risk management department does and why it's important; the fact that your boss will earn more yet work fewer hours than you; and that in banking you have to be quicker, smarter, or (not really a good long-term option) a cheater to get ahead. All of these things are true, and useful to know. But being informative doesn't necessarily make something entertainment.

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