I know that this film has been out for a while in the States and in the UK, but it’s just been released here.
I saw this on Tuesday, which was a public holiday. It’s obviously a thing to go to the cinema here on public holidays. The queues were huge and the cinema was packed. It’s so much more thrilling when you see a film in a full cinema. I find shared experiences such as this so much more memorable than watching a film, no matter how good, at home on DVD.
The film is based on the events that led up to the 2008 economic crisis, caused, as you probably know, by reckless mortgage lending and the subsequent repackaging of these subprime mortgages into tradable packages.
The film focusses on a few people in an investment bank. Following the firing of a large number of staff [a not infrequent occurrence in this world and one which the Americans handle in the most glib manner imaginable, just shy of summary execution], a senior analyst [Stanley Tucci], hands over a memory stick to a junior [and, handily, ever so clever] colleague, telling him that this is what he has been working on and to “be careful”.
The analyst [Zachary Quinto], takes a look and completes Tucci’s work, realising that the fundamental algorithm that underpins much of the financial trading system is flawed and that the bank’s outlook, and that of the western economy, is no longer so rosy. And so the film starts. The awareness of the problem escalates, the senior managers and directors are called in at four in the morning and then Jeremy Irons, the bank’s CEO, appears. The film focusses on how they are going to deal with the issue, since they are first to know that the system is about to collapse. As Irons says “It’s not panicking when you are first out the door”.
This is the best business film I have seen since Glengarry Glen Ross, to which it is very similar. Both films are based around a small number of men, desperately trying to handle the sale of assets, particularly worthless ones. In the same way that Wall Street described the stockbroking world and the more widespread materialist greed of the 1980s, Margin Call is very much a defining film of the attitudes and mores of the financial system in the 2000s. These aren’t the outlandish stereotypes of popular culture with red braces, slick-backed hair and stripy, white collared shirts; these are normal people who just happen to be paid enormous amounts of money.
Although the film is set in a world which causes most of us to switch off, the economic aspects are dealt with magnificently. There is no need to be confronted by complex financial arrangements or calculations. In fact, as a couple of characters point out, they aren’t very good with the numbers side of things – they just want things in plain English. The question is essentially “what do you do when you are the only people who know that something very, VERY bad is going to happen?” The short term solution helps you survive at the expense of others and the long term outlook is maybe a little more vague. For its subject matter, this is a thriller, is completely engrossing and this is due to the characters, played by a strong cast including Tucci, Irons, Kevin Spacey and Paul Bettany, and the fact that we all know what’s coming.
Sure enough, the people with the money and the knowledge keep going, and it’s the rest of the world who pays the price. And you know what? It’s going to happen again….