Margin Call (USA, 2011)

margin-call_movie-poster-02Directed by: J.C. Chandor. This is a movie I hadn’t seen ads for, hadn’t seen in theatres, hadn’t seen any sign of whatsoever until I found it at the local library, many years ago. Maybe I was deterred by its resemblance to Recount, another low-publicity, no-awards, movie about a structural injustice in recent memory—a “current events” movie—featuring an ensemble cast in suits and ties. I was pretty disappointed with the one-sided generalization of Recount (even though if I were American I’d likely be a Democrat), and maybe that’s what subconsciously skewed me away from this movie for so long, even though I’d kept one eye on it for years and years—I love me some Paul Bettany, and who can resist Kevin Spacey, and I haven’t seen good old Demi in forever, and Jeremy Irons? What am I waiting for?? And you know, you don’t see Stanley Tucci enough these days. So when it presented itself on Netflix and I was between TV shows, and I’d had enough WWII in Colour, I thought that it was time for a gripping, intelligent, well-acted, sleek, high-stakes Wall Street drama performing an indictment of the entire modern financial sector. And, I’m happy to report, that is exactly what I got. I can’t claim—probably like all of the actors—to know anything about the stock market jargon these guys are rattling off, but it sounds pretty good in the context of this movie anyway. I love how these guys, the characters, these high-ranking Barons of modern capitalism, need to ask some young kid, the “rocket scientist” (played by the Spock guy), to get the details of all of this shit straight because Spacey and even the big boss, Jeremy Irons, doesn’t really seem to understand the details of what they actually do. There’s that old chestnut about how if you can’t explain what you do for a living to a child, then you’re probably a charlatan, and this movie conveys that beautifully. There are definitely algorithms at work here, but what we are shown is that, with a little bit of irresponsible behaviour from on high, these formulas that the entire company was built upon, in this case for like 150 years, can slowly edge the company over the precipice, and in this case, as one character points out, “There’s paperwork all over the world worth $8 trillion that’s relying on that formula”. This movie does a good job of balancing the details of believability and the pragmatic knowledge that none of us understand it, and that none of us actually need to understand it. What we need to understand here is human behaviour, psychology, power dynamics, etc. All of that shit is super familiar. And, as always when I’m consuming any kind of history—and this is a kind of history, albeit one shrouded in the distance of drama and fictionalization—is how incredibly flawed and precarious are the systems that run the world, because those systems are nothing more than a storage container for  human beings, subject to human decisions, human desires, and human weaknesses. This goes for government, war, business, and it’s the reason that a handful (more of a handful likely than what is depicted in this film, but still) of individual humans with immense power, whose decisions and failings were able to produce effects on every human being on the planet that are still felt today, and will likely continue to be felt, until another group of human beings does the same damn thing, and (unfortunately) probably not that long from now. Towards the end, as the characters were all reflecting and summarizing, I detected the film maybe endorsing the words of the characters; I got a sense that the film, in not wanting to be didactic and “political”, to not take sides, steps so far back that it opens up the interpretation that maybe these things are inevitable, etc. Mind you, the characters saying that aren’t portrayed very flatteringly, and the main sympathetic characters remain hostile and suspicious of the entire industry by the end. Paul Bettany gives an amazing performance, as does everybody here. I didn’t know Simon Baker but he’s great. I wish Demi would get more stuff to do, because I think she’s capable of some really great stuff. This new Spock kid, Zachary Quinto, also does a really good job, and I hope he’s careful to avoid the potential Spockification of his career that iconic performances can easily produce. I had a half-formed observation that came from another topic, something about history film and the ratio of time passing after an event or social issue is emotionally pertinent to the level of criticism, or more crudely—the more time that elapses, the more overtly leftist or progressive the critique is allowed to be in a Hollywood movie. For a lot of reasons, this is probably a blind alley, or anyway, it’s a gross generalization. But one of the only niches outside of that formula that I thought of off the top of my head were Wall Street movies—Oliver Stone’s massive Wall Street, obviously, utterly disparaging and critiquing the institutional greed of the mid-80’s stock market culture, and basically ever other Wall Street movie I’ve seen, from Boiler Room to Wolf of Wall Street. Movies that seem to overtly critique living politicians or political movements seem to not really have legs or go anywhere critically or commercially—Recount, the Sarah Palin movie Game Change, and I can think of no others (again, it’s a weak argument right now). Oliver Stone’s W was a bit of grey area, because it was disparaging, but still pretty middling, nothing like the operatic gusto of Nixon and JFK and Born on the Fourth of July The basis for this thesis is an offhand comparison I made (long before this blog) between the view of immigrants in Gangs of New York and Gran Torino. In the former, it’s historical America, and the narrow-minded racist anti-immigrant bad guy has to be defeated in order for America to be made whole by the patchwork quilt of 19th century immigrants. In the latter, it’s modern day America, and the anti-immigrant guy is the protagonist, and his transformation comes internally, and he’s sacrificed for the greater good of the patchwork immigrant America, but only after demonstrating that the menacing hordes of violent immigrants really are menacing and violent and a threat to the American way of life. I dunno, there’s probably a lot more (or less) going on that what I think, and maybe this film has nothing to do with any of it. But it’s got great acting and great suits, so go see it.

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