Movie Review: Margin Call (2011 – J.C. Chandor)

Since the DVD just came out today, I thought I’d post this.

Movie Review: MARGIN CALL

Or, The Thankless Job of Quants a.k.a. Sylar’s Good!

This fictional recreation about the collapse of an unnamed Wall Street firm (maybe a combination of Lehman Brothers and Bear Stearns) circa 2008 opens with what one “survivor” calls a bloodbath. “It’s gonna to get pretty ugly ‘round here,” he says afterwards, a bit dazed.

The following 90 plus minutes prove this observation to be prescient. Although Chandor’s picture is not a gore-fest of fake blood, “blood-letting” comes in the form of ruthless infighting. The “street fighters” are firm execs and their subordinates trying to shift blame for the firm’s failure to the lowest man (or lone woman played by Demi Moore) in the bureaucratic hierarchy.

Unlike in Heroes, Zachary Quinto isn’t among those getting his handy dirty or turning a blind eye to the risks that “cooked books” could lead to. He solves the puzzle that a predecessor who didn’t survive the pink-slip confetti time was sorting out (reminiscent of what  “Suresh”* used to do before dealing with Covert Affairs).

Cast of this fiction-meets-reality thriller strike tense poses. (Aceshowbiz)

The solved “puzzle” being the extraordinary risk that the firm had taken on its balance sheets (merging off-balance sheet dealings made the firm’s outlook even bleaker).

He’s the whistle-blowing “rocket science” on the “good guys” side, trying to prevent a fall that seems predestined, since his dithering higher-ranked bosses are clueless about what the “number guys” do anymore.

They pretend to understand what we do,” Seth, Peter’s younger money-hungry colleague says after Peter makes him and their immediate boss aware of the financial weapons of mass destruction (h/t “the Wizard of Omaha”, Warren Buffet, on their balance sheets waiting to explode.

In fact, when the pair meet up with Kevin Spacey to talk about the pending doom, he tells them to not show him any spreadsheets and Peter’s dense analysis, “You know I can’t read this. Speak to me in English.”

This line alone alongside several others illuminates how the real-life Wall Street firms’ failure to crunch the numbers and ignoring their “Cassandras” fueled the crisis that nearly destroyed them and the global market economy.

A key scene and easily the most adrenaline-pumping scene is the “fire-sale” sequence.

Spacey’s character is a reluctant cheerleader for the infection of the market with their “cancer” (as the British regulator referred to crappy American Wall Street balance sheets in Too Big Too Fail). But he still spurs on his team of traders and brokers with a ra-ra speech to comfort them as much as he did after seeing their friends fired at the film’s beginning (“You were better” than them.)

He makes a game out of liquidating the firm’s assets, daring the traders and brokers to break their own records of selling off financial products within a few hours – before the rest of the Street catches on to what they were doing. In spite of their “success”, the traders are brokers are still shown walking papers once the business day ends.

While the HBO special with a cameo from its original author (NYT‘s Andrew Ross Sorkin), clearly had more star-power, and suspense (the cliffhanger: “They will start lending, won’t they?” winds up being a resoudning NO! in reality), Margin catches Wall Street ‘s finest (i.e. the top bosses and their immediate subordinates) among themselves instead of interacting with their future or ex-co-workers. These fictitious interactions are pretty telling.

SETTING: The firm’s boss, a one-percenter, in a pricey, five-star Manhattan skyscraper restaurant, slicing into a five-star steak, eating bits of food with five-star kitchenware/table utensils while talking, detachedly, to Kevin Spacey about why people shouldn’t obsess over money.

JOHN (Jeremy London): “It’s just money. It’s made up of pieces of papers with pictures on them.

We don’t have to kill each other just to get something to eat.”

[Spoken while yet another robo-signed house gets illegally foreclosed on….]

In addition to having one character looking down on normal people’s do-or-die quest for money, another character embodies the general disregard and contempt that many believe they have for Main Street.

While driving back from the house of the first number guy (Stanley Tucci) to come across the troubling numbers on the firm’s balance sheets, Will (Paul Bettany), the quant duo’s higher-up says while surveying everyday Americans oblivious to coming financial and economic chaos: “They’re all fucked,” he says turning to look at Seth who tagged along for the failed mission in a convertible, “They’ll crucify us.”

Within seconds though, he shrugs them off, “Fuck normal people.”

That’s the type of attitude that lead the real-life finance-banking industry – with much assistance from (1) the revolving door between it and their so-called government regulators, (2) predatory lenders and their chummy real-estate brokers/assessors (read Michael Hudson’s Monster), (3) the GSEs of Fannie/Freddie (read Gretechen Morgenson’s & Joshua Rosner’s RECKLES$ ENDANGERMENT), and (4) a sleeping business news press – and the economy into this slow recovery rut we’re still stuck in.

While nearly all the lines spoken seem believable, one is just pure fiction, just too self aware. It borders on apologia. Seth offhandedly remarks that “normal people” see Wall Streeters as nothing short of “glorified crack addicts” , since their desk work and marathon of daily phone-calls is not as sweat-inducing as blue-collar jobs.

No self-respecting Wall Street player, regardless of their rank, would admit such a thing. Or the real-life counterparts that this nameless firm fictionalizes wouldn’t be fighting as hard as they have to as the government makes (half-hearted) attempts to prevent the next crisis.

And a Gawker post this morning shows, the quotes that some billionaires told a Bloomberg reporter shows how fictional Seth’s admission truly is.

Rating: 7/10 – Potential Cult Classic

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