Margin Call (R): Movie Review.

[Okay, this is really only like 25% movie review, 75% my hypothesizing about systemic ills that cause significantly societal dysfunction]

Margin Call is a 2011 film with an a great ensemble cast that includes Kevin Spacey, Paul Bettany, Jeremy Irons, Zachary Quinto, Simon Baker, Demi Moore, Stanley Tucci, and Aasif Mandvi amongst others. It provides an “inside look” at a Wall Street finances firm during the 2008 financial crisis – albeit a fictional one.

Margin Call - a movie about the 2008 financial crisis.
Margin Call – a movie about the 2008 financial crisis.

The film contains no violence or nudity[1], it does, however, include a boatload of profanity – including religious…and I mean pervasive profanity.

If you are looking for a film that helps explain what happened in 2008 and perhaps one that will rile you up a bit, this is a good film to select – though it is too nuanced to be the sort of rage flick that allows us to direct all our hatred towards abominably evil characters – for that you’ll have to look to  Uwe Boll’s controversial and simplistic film Assault on Wall Street (2013, R).

Margin Call does demonstrate the greed and dishonesty which allowed the collapse to occur. It also highlights the way in which extremely intelligent individuals have been leaving jobs which are highly productive for society (e.g. engineering space craft and bridges) to these financial trading careers which have questionable value for society. It manages to enrage us with the “golden parachutes” many of the “higher-ups” secure for themselves even as they cut their employees off at the knees and leave the common man holding the bag and towards the end John Tuld (Jeremy Irons) characters highlights that the 2008 crash is not a one-time occurrence, but something which has been occurring with great regularity throughout history – and yet has not been stopped and is not being stopped now.

At the same time, it calls us, the common people, to account for our complicity in what occurred. In a powerful scene where Will Emerson (Paul Bettany) and Peter Sullivan (Zachary Quinto) are driving together, Seth notes how devastating the crash will be for “real people” – to which Will explains why Seth should not feel sympathy for the “real people” who essentially pay the financial traders to abstract their dirty work – so they can feel better about themselves. Here is the relevant dialogue (you’ll see what I mean about pervasive profanity):

Seth: “—-, this is going to really affect people.”

Will: “Yeah, it’s gonna affect people like me.”

Seth: “No, Will, real people.”

Will: “—–, Seth. Listen, if you really want to do this with your life, you have to believe you are necessary, and you are. People want to live like this–in their cars and big ——- houses they can’t even pay for, then you’re necessary. The only reason that they all get to continue living like kings is because we’ve got out fingers on the scales in their favor.”

“I take my hand off, then the whole world gets really ——- fair really ——- quickly and nobody actually wants that. They say they do, but they don’t. They want what we have to give them, but they also want to, you know, play innocent and pretend they have no idea where it came from.”

“Well, that’s more hypocrisy than I’m willing to swallow. So —- ’em. —- normal people.”

“You know the funny thing is, tomorrow if all of this goes —- up? They’re going to crucify us for being too reckless. But if we’re wrong, and everything gets back on track, well then, the same people are going to laugh till they piss their pants ‘case we’re gonna look like the biggest ——- God ever let through the door.”

In other words, we desire a certain standard of living, so we engage in questionable practices in order to sustain that level of living – but we remove ourselves from conscious involvement in this unethical behavior by “handing off” the dirty work to the financial traders. We praise them when they do well for us and are horrified when they fail us and/or act unethically.

I have a developing hypothesis about evil. In my experience I find fewer evil people than I expect and more systems which propagate evil. I do not mean to excuse the financial traders for their unethical actions, but only note that removing the unethical (or evil) individuals will not rectify the problem – why? Because the system still exists and the system points incalculable pressure upon the individual to act unethically – thus creating more unethical individuals, which will, naturally, result in more unethical behavior.

I need to read up more on economics and specifically on the stock market – but I tentatively hypothesize that we’d need a fundamental change in the way the stock market operates in order to rectify (at least significantly) this system. This could perhaps be achieved by making investments in stocks somehow (I don’t know how) primarily about deriving profits from profit sharing dividends, rather than the current scenario in which much of what is bought/sold is done so under the philosophy of buy low, sell high – which creates an unsustainable pressure upon companies to continually increase profits (or risk the rage of the stockholder).

The ironic thing is, if I’m right, we are cutting each other off at the knees. Company X lays off 5,000 employees to increase its profits so stockholders don’t sell…the employees are righteously angry. Who are those stockholders? Well, many of them are from Company Y which just cut 5,000 employees to keep their profits increasing (and who are their stockholders? Why people from Company X!). Obviously this is a vast oversimplification…but it seems to me we are demanding increased profits from those we invest in yet at the same time demanding that the companies act in more generous, considerate ways – and in so doing we ask the impossible.

I’d love to hear your thoughts? As I said, I’m no expert on economics or the stock market.

  1. [1]Though two of the characters are briefly at a strip joint, the film (amazingly) chooses not to throw in nudity to attract additional viewers

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