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Investment bankers and other monsters

  • 22 March 2012

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