Margin Call (2011)

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*. The subprime mortgage crisis, which kicked off in 2007, entered the cultural bloodstream with a rush. There were countless books attempting to explain it, as well as documentaries (Inside Job being perhaps the best known), and dramatic treatments. Indeed, there’s enough material out there that it would be an interesting project to aggregate it and see if there is some kind of mythic shape that the story has taken on, a distillation or interpretation of its larger or deeper meaning.
*. I won’t be undertaking that project here, though I think Margin Call would have an important place in any such discussion.
*. It’s approach to the crisis is almost abstract. Condensing the popping of the bubble into the events of a single day, and a single building, it unfolds like a classical theatre piece respecting the unities of time and place, with a restricted ensemble cast and no effects.
*. It’s also a very quiet movie, very subdued in tone. The people we see are tired and under pressure, but they don’t crack. Nobody ever raises their voice. Eric smashes his cell phone and Seth cries in a stall, but they quickly recover and carry on. This is daring and refreshing, as the essence of most (American) films is to raise the decibel level to show drama. But here even the score is understated.
*. The sound of silence is used quite effectively to make a point in the scene where Irons informs the board that the music has already stopped. His ability to “hear” the market is why he makes the big bucks, and now he’s afraid he can’t hear a thing as he stands at the head of the conference table.

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*. I’m not sure what the title refers to. There is no margin call in the movie. I think the plan is for the firm to avoid a margin call, or something like that.
*. As with all of the subprime movies, a central matter to be dealt with is how to explain the complicated events going on. I think this is a weakness of this film. Explanations are introduced through the expedient of having various characters express ignorance of the most basic elements of their job. I don’t doubt for a moment that many people in positions of power and authority in fact did not understand what was going on, but relaying that here introduces a couple of problems.
*. In the first place, because of the compressed time scheme and plot requirements, the problem the company faces has to be something both very simple and completely earth-shaking. But what is it, exactly? The company is over-leveraged with bad mortgage-backed securities? What secret formula did Eric and Peter discover?
*. The other problem is that the higher-ups have to all be presented as pretty thick. They repeatedly ask for things to be explained to them in “plain English” for the audience’s benefit. Kevin Spacey’s Sam Rogers takes one look at a computer screen and says “I can’t read these things.” What? A spreadsheet?

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*. The most extreme example of this, however, is Jeremy Irons’ CEO John Tuld. It’s a role that comes close to that of The Office‘s Michael Scott, from his mangling of metaphors (“spilt millk under the bridge”) to his insistence that things be explained to him very, very simply. Again, this might be realistic, but when he asks Peter to “speak as you might to a small child or a golden retriever” he is taking a line almost directly from The Office when Michael Scott asks the accountant Oscar to explain a budget surplus to him in terms a five-year-old might understand. I understand the point of this, to make a bit of necessary exposition fun (The Big Short would try to do the same thing in an even more exaggerated way), but it undercuts our belief in the character.
*. Spacey and Irons are both great, but their roles don’t require them to work their acting muscles very hard. I think they could have read their lines perfectly on a very bad day, maybe even if they were down with the flu or nursing a hangover.

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*. Instead of these two, the actors I found myself enjoying the most were Simon Baker and Demi Moore. I really felt they stole the show, both projecting quiet menace and grit. On the commentary a lot is made of a scene where Irons says nothing but you can see him clenching and unclenching his jaw. It’s that kind of movie, filled with those kinds of subtleties. But if you watch Moore’s scene with Irons, where he tells her that she’s to be sacrificed, you can see her working the same jaw action, and I think it’s even more effective.
*. As for Baker, he’s great throughout, slick with charisma and intrigue. He also gets to deliver my favourite line in the film, when Seth confesses to him that all he (Seth) has ever wanted to be is a Wall Street trader. There’s a pause and Baker says “Really?”
*. A lot has to be packed into the line. A little bit of disbelief, a bit of surprise, perhaps even the sense that he is slightly impressed . . . all outweighed by his indifference to what Seth wants, or wanted, to do with his life. It’s a great moment.
*. Does Zachary Quinto have eyebrows, or are they just painted on?
*. I didn’t quite buy Spacey’s moral qualms, but still thought he was far more believable than Steve Carell’s righteous turn in The Big Short. Indeed, despite this being such a theatrical, artificial production in so many ways (the abstraction I mentioned earlier), its characters are far more believable than the “real” people we get in The Big Short. There are no heroes and villains here, and the moral questions — involving issues of loyalty and responsibility — are far more honest and compelling.

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*. As far as the meaning of the crisis is concerned, the keynote struck here is the unreality of the world of high finance. The Masters of the Universe are set against other people who are up all night breathing “real air” out in the streets, or the janitorial staff cleaning up the offices. These, the movie tells us, are real people doing real jobs. In contrast, when Seth tells Will that this is going to affect people, Will’s response is that “Yeah, it’s going to affect people like me. No real people.”
*. If the corporate traders aren’t real, the work they do is even less so. Both Eric and Peter are trained engineers, and there’s something made throughout the movie about how talents should be used to do something of greater social utility than playing around with numbers on a screen. Peter might have built more bridges. Sam Rogers might have only dug ditches, but then “at least there’d be some holes in the ground to show for it.” Meanwhile, money has no reality at all. As Irons puts it, “It’s made up, pieces of paper with pictures on it.” It’s the virtual economy, being run by virtual people. The impact of what they do in the tower will have a real impact, but nobody in the tower will feel it.
*. Good ol’ Sam Rogers does get to dig his hole at the end. I guess the main point being that death operates as a kind of ultimate reality in his make-believe world. And I love the way how the shoveling noises are kept on the soundtrack as the final credits roll. The traders and CEOs aren’t building anything. They are the gravediggers of capitalism.

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