Be first. Be smarter. Or Cheat.
The film marks the directorial debut of J.C. Chandor, who also wrote the original screenplay. It is a low budget affair, shot in 17 days for just $3.5 million. The ensemble cast has some powerful acting firepower, including Kevin Spacey, Stanley Tucci, Paul Bettany, Jeremy Irons and Demi Moore among others. We are presented with 24 hours in the life of a Wall Street investment bank just as the financial crisis of 2008 is about to hit. At the heart of the movie is the young risk analyst Peter Sullivan played by Zachary Quinto.
His boss, Stanley Tucci, is 'canned' and in the ruthlessness nature of the way these things are done, is given just a few minutes to clear his desk. At the same time his access to corporate emails and his Blackberry are closed off. As he leaves the building under escort, with the words, "Be careful," he hands a memory stick to Quinto. It is something he has been working on but has not had time to finish.
We fast forward to the end of the day. Rather than head for a bar with his colleagues to celebrate the fact they avoided the axe, Quinto's character stays at work, deciding to take a look at what his boss had been working on. Very quickly he realises something has gone badly wrong for the investment bank. Its financial positions and investments have been based on a flawed risk model. The markets are moving against it and the firm faces potential losses greater than its market capitalisation.
This is when the plot kicks into high gear with meetings through the night as more and more senior members of the firm are alerted to the dangers it faces until its boss of bosses, Jeremy Irons, takes the strategic decision to close out, telling his trading boss Spacey that the positions have to be unwound, whatever it takes and whatever it does to the firm's reputation and to its counterparties. He's accused of panic by Spacey but responds drily that heading for the exit first does not mean you are panicking. Irons' character is suitably reptilian, with cold-eyed honesty. Indeed, one almost expected him to vapourise in sunlight!
The firm survives, having burned bridges with its opposite numbers, but many of its employees are let go albeit with handsome pay-offs for successfully dumping their toxic assets on someone else. The movie ends with the suggestion that Quinto's character is to be rewarded and promoted while Jeremy Irons muses on the prospect of the money to be made in the chaos to come.
Unlike the Matt Damon-narrated 'Inside Job' (Banker Middle East, March 2011, p.53) or even the dramatised 'Too Big to Fail' (Banker Middle East, June 2011, p.39), 'Margin Call' does not purport to tell a true story as such but no doubt many in financial services everywhere in the world will be familiar with the character types and character traits on display.
The movie does not get bogged down in technical detail - it does, after all, aim to appeal as an entertainment to a wider audience. Indeed on more than one occasion, having discovered that recent volatility in the market is threatening the stability of the mortgage-based securities that have been generating most of the bank's profits, Quinto's character is asked to explain the problem to his bosses 'as if to a child'. It is a running gag in the movie that the higher up the firm a character is, the less he understands exactly what the firm has been doing. Some of you may wonder how realistic this is. I was reminded of the collapse of Barings back in 1995 - none of the highly paid executives at the British merchant bank had the least idea what Nick Leeson was getting up to in Singapore.
The movie plays out as a tense thriller and does engage the audience all the way. Tucci's ability to hand on a memory stick to Quinto was an early jarring moment albeit an important plot point. Surely nobody being escorted off an investment bank's premises would be allowed to pass around such electronic media?
"Margin Call' is not a history or economics lesson. It does not set out to explain what happened in 2008 but to show the psychological pressures and ethics (or lack of) involved among the financial community - most especially those who saw what was coming and chose, for their own survival, to let others fall.
It is a running gag in the movie that the higher up the firm a character is, the less he understands exactly what the firm has been doing.
The film is quite claustrophobic in nature, set mainly in a series of offices and trading rooms within the boundaries of the investment bank's building. What it will do is underline to a wider audience the fact that Wall Street's investment bankers tend to be arrogant salesmen rather than economic thinkers.
Given only a limited release but available on a variety of legal download services, 'Margin Call' is worth a watch. It has mainly been well-received by critics, lauded for its complex plot, smart script, and impressive cast, although in the UK, The Guardian suggested 'it cannot resist the seductive machismo' of the Street. Ultimately you may indeed find yourself rooting for the firm to survive - if you do it is perhaps a measure of the success of the script in making Wall Street's Masters of the Universe appear to be human beings after all! nBME
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