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Margin Call – J.C.Chandor Heads we win, Tails you lose




Margin Call – J.C.Chandor

Amidst all the Shame-ful noise,  Iron-Lady controversy and War Horsey hype, don’t let this superb little film slip under your radar. Shot in about 17 days for under $4m it has more tension and suspense than many films costing 50 times that amount.

New Director J.C. Chandor has made best use of an all-star cast (Kevin Spacey, Jeremy Irons, Demi Moore, Stanley Tucci, Paul Bettany) all committed to a meticulously constructed screenplay that ticks towards its known but scarcely credible climax like a watch attached as detonator to a massive bomb.

Margin Call is a fictionalised account of a thinly disguised Lehman Brothers-type US investment bank which was the first financial domino to fall in an endless line, still tumbling today; the momentum of which Governments around the world first struggled to slow and are now trying to halt; while there are still some dominoes left standing.

We are all broadly aware of what led to the credit crunch which in financial terms was and remains cosmological in scale – the numbers beggar belief to the point of incomprehensibility. Importantly however, the credit crunch is the critical context of Chandor’s film but not its focus. It has been, wrongly in my view, compared to Oliver Stone’s Wall Street movies (1987 and 2010). Wrongly because however entertaining, Stone’s films were typically polemical and perpetuated the myth that many want to clutch at today: a sound system perverted and exploited by a charismatic, larger than life corrupt individual in turn corrupting other individuals into collaborating with him in criminal activity. This is a dangerous delusion as it suggests that if we get rid of a few rogue rotten apples the barrel will be fine.

Chandor’s film is deeper. Forensically, and from my own experience, accurately, he perfectly captures the atmosphere and tone of an aggressively competitive corporate structure. Ordinary men and women with spouses and kids and mortgages but also ‘blessed’ with extraordinary acute minds especially mathematical, are enveloped in an atmosphere of ambition, aggressive competitiveness, single-minded commitment and a toxic blend of fear and unimagined rewards.

Sitting above this high risk but thrilling dynamic is a rigorous hierarchy with a sedulously sustained mystique: at least 5 levels of line management with a seldom seen, legendary figure at the top: legendary not just in terms of wealth and success but also in terms of maintaining a ruthless absolute priority of the needs of the business over any individual or any principle.

We see the implacably Darwinian social organism that is a highly competitive corporate entity in action from the very beginning of Margin Call: 80% of the traders specialising in what we now know to call sub-prime mortgages and their derivative financial products are fired in a chillingly efficient, well-tested process: you’re out; here’s your deal; fight it and you’ll lose; now security will escort you from the building. I’ve seen this happen and believe me it’s ugly; especially as you cannot supress the feeling – thank God it’s not me. Cf: wife, kids, mortage etc etc. The surviving 20% are told “this is your great opportunity- we’ve just removed 4 people between you and your boss’s job.”

Everyone is stunned when the head of the trading floor Eric Dale (Stanley Tucci) is also canned. As he leaves he throws a memory stick to his protégé Peter (Zachary Quinto) – “something I’ve been working on – check it out: but be careful).” Peter is an ex-rocket scientist selling his maths brilliance to a higher bidder in the world of finance.

What Peter discovers is an undetected, unrecoverable, financial exposure of the company that threatens its very existence. What follows is a gradual ascent through the jealously guarded levels of status and authority: Peter primes his new boss, the savvy, cynical Will (Paul Bettany) who knows he will never be admitted to the inner sanctum of the corporate structure. Then up to long-serving company Trading Director Sam Rogers (Kevin Spacey) who when he has had the obscure maths spelt out, immediately realises the seriousness of the situation. On up through Director Jared Cohen and eventually with hushed and a palpable sense of anxiety, to Jeremy Irons’ John Tuld who of course flies in by helicopter to deal with the situation.

This gradual ascent up through the increasingly rarefied managerial air towards the corporate mount Olympus Tuld occupies is as tense and exciting as any assault on a mountain or rock face. We see men who preside daily and with assiduously cultivated detachment, over the wreckage of junior employees’ lives, realising that they too may now be at risk.

Chandor builds the suspense of this journey beautifully: as if someone has discovered a massive ticking bomb in the basement and gradually more and people are required to try first to defuse it and when that’s not possible, overseeing the removal of the danger from the building. All in their various ways are presented with dilemmas, personal and ethical. These are people in thrall to a system which turns choice into a necessity. Locked in to a live-style needing large rewards to sustain, all in their different ways feel they have no alternative.

Tuld realises the game is up: so decides to sell all the toxic stock to present clients and contacts as fast as possible before word gets round – knowing full well that it will be worthless as soon as the collapse of the attenuated thread of high risk, unsecured debt unravels. He knows no one will ever buy from them again and the same for his traders, so he offers each of them $2.6m to unload 93% of the toxic stock.

Thinly disguised Lehman’s? The last head of Lehman’s was Richard Fuld. Despite his protests otherwise – he is credibly reputed to have taken at least $500m out of Lehman’s between 2001 and 2007. The consequences for the banking purchasers and the world economy of over a trillion$-worth of worthless derivative stocks are still being felt today.

The only cavil I have with Chandor’s film is that Jeremy Irons is just a bit too good; a bit too charismatic: though no Gordon Gecko he hints at the mythology Oliver Stone peddles. The chilling thing about the real Dick Fuld is how inept and unimpressive he seems. (Check him out on UTube – it’s a relevation).

If you want to understand the detail of the background here, having seen and I hope, enjoyed Margin Call, rent Charles Ferguson’s Oscar winning Inside Job (I reviewed 13.3.11). These aren’t supermen locked into the inexorable necessities of a system neither they nor we can do anything about. They are snake-oil salesmen creating and sustaining an utterly self-serving system of exaggerated rewards and a climate of fear, pushing the venal fiction that what’s good for them must be good for us. And of course that we cannot possibly manage without them.

The answers to this are circular. And they bounce.

See also:

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