Investment bankers and other monsters

1 Comment

Margin Call (MA). Director: J. C. Chandor. Starring: Zachary Quinto, Stanley Tucci, Kevin Spacey, Jeremy Irons, Penn Badgley, Paul Bettany, Demi Moore. 107 minutes

In one pertinent scene, Eric Dale (Tucci), the middle-aged former head of risk management on one of the trading floors of a major investment bank, recalls an achievement from a past career as an engineer. He remembers a bridge that he once helped to build, which had significantly improved routes used by urban commuters.

With intimidating ease he mentally calculates the number of hours that the bridge had saved, based on the number of people who use it, the average reduction in their commute, the number of commutes per week and extrapolated across the lifetime of the bridge. The number is massive.

'Time' here is not an abstract; Dale sees the bridge as giving people back pieces of their lives, which otherwise would have been wasted in traffic. The implication is not lost on trading desk head Will Emerson (Bettany), to whom Dale tells the story. A bridge is tangible. Building one has real benefits for everyday people. This stands in contrast with their roles on Wall Street, where fortunes have been made buying and selling the idea of money.

Elsewhere in the film another character puts it more succinctly. If he dug ditches for a living, at least there'd be a ditch to show for it.

Margin Call is full of such ethical and moral conversations about the kinds of behaviour that led to the Global Financial Crisis. Writer-director Chandor's Oscar nomination for Best Screenplay testifies to the film's efficiency and poignancy in exploring these ideas. The film is set in 2008 on the eve of the GFC itself and stands more as a kind of philosophical horror story than a cautionary tale about the destructive power of human greed.

The setting is an investment bank loosely modelled on Lehman Bros, notorious for its part in sparking the crisis. Dale has just been lain off, but not before he had stumbled onto something big. His figures are incomplete howerver, so before he leaves he passes them on to young risk analyst Peter Sullivan (Quinto). Sullivan finishes the calculations that night, and in so doing he uncovers the likelihood of the bank's imminent collapse.

This triggers a series of late-night meetings with increasingly senior executives, who test the veracity of the figures (the film is quite neat and user-friendly in its explanations of these complex mathematical matters) and try to determine the right course of action. Of course what's right for the bank or for individuals is a different equation to what's right for Wall Street as a whole or the wider community (let alone the global economy).

The players include Emerson's immediate superior Sam Rogers (Spacey), division head Jared Cohen (Baker), chief risk officer Sarah Robertson (Moore), and CEO John Tuld (Irons).

It would be tempting to view these characters simply as villains. Yet only Tuld is readily despicable. Like Daniel Day Lewis' oil baron in There Will Be Blood, Irons portrays Tuld as a kind of sinewy bishop to capitalism, not glutted on greed (an Orwellian pig) but gaunt and vicious as if physically corrupted by his devotion to the market. He preaches economics and excuses the crisis as a glitch in the economic cycle of life.

Most of the other characters are humanised to some extent. Sullivan and his young colleague Seth Bregman (Badgely) witness the unfolding crisis with boyish awe (although Bregman remains unhealthily preoccupied with salary sizes). The first time we meet Rogers he is weeping for a sick pet; Spacey portrays him with some warmth and he is, along with Dale, the closest thing that Margin Call has to a moral centre.

Yet humanity makes the characters and the situation all the more frightening. Tuld is a monster and Cohen is cold and calculating, yet even the most principled characters are shown to compromise to varying degrees in the name of self-interest. And self-interest was the problem in the first place, not only on the part of Wall Street's investment bankers but also for anyone who benefited from the nebulous wealth they generated.

If only they had built bridges instead. 

Tim KroenertTim Kroenert is Assistant Editor of Eureka Street


Topic tags: Tim Kroenert, Margin Call, Global Financial Crisis



submit a comment

Existing comments

In real life there should be a reasonable balance between business activity aiming at maximising profit and personal wealth, and a degree of government regulation aimed at providing for the well-being of people in all walks of life. Currently there is excessive power in the hands of the extremely rich in Australia, although it is even worse in the U.S.A. - as made very clear by the renowned American economist, Robert Reich.
Bob Corcoran | 22 March 2012


Subscribe for more stories like this.

Free sign-up