There has been no shortage of documentaries about the 2008 financial meltdown and related issues. Inside Job, which the Saratoga Film Forum screened last year, was perhaps the highest-profile of these. 2009’s Collapse was another, and the Enron-collapse doc The Smartest Guys in the Room dates from 2003. But “financial dramas”—let alone financial thrillers—have tended to be few and far between. 2010’s The Company Men was a bit of a flop and got mixed reviews (including only a 67% on the Rotten Tomatoes Tomatometer). HBO’s Too Big to Fail, based on the nonfiction book by Andrew Ross Sorkin, has been described as a dramatized version of Inside Job. (Metacritic has a pretty thorough roundup of recession-themed films here.) Speaking of HBO, one of my favorite “finance films” was 1993’s Barbarians at the Gate, which, though not without its suspense, was played more as a black comedy, thanks to a screenplay by the late great Larry Gelbart. There is also Trading Places, speaking of dark financial comedies. (Wall Street and Boiler Room round out the master list of Wall Street flicks.)
The idea of a “financial thriller” may sound somewhat oxymoronic, although in the book world, it is a growing genre. One of the challenges of this genre, is grokking the lingo. Even after reading the explanation of a margin call, it’s still a bit of a mystery. So the challenge of a good financial thriller is to ramp up the suspense while keeping exposition sounding less like an MBA thesis.
About 20 minutes into Margin Call, Peter Sullivan, a fairly junior member of an investment bank (loosely based on Lehman Brothers), begins the initial explanation of what is happening that will end up triggering the financial meltdown. “It’s fairly complicated,” Sullivan begins. “Simplify!” urges trading floor head Will Emerson (Paul Bettany), who no doubt speaks for the viewer. That Sullivan is played by Zachary Quinto, whose most famous role (arguably) is that of Mr. Spock in the 2009 Star Trek reboot, perhaps lends a tone of “technobabble” to the proceedings, but it gives us just enough to let us know what’s happening without offering “too much information.” Emerson then tries to further explain to his boss Sam Rogers (Kevin Spacey), who says, “Just talk to me in English,” a sentiment repeated by the Boss of All Bosses John Tuld (Jeremy Irons) in an early morning meeting. “Speak as you might to a small child or a golden retriever.”
“Look at these people,” says Sullivan, as he and his colleague Seth Bregman (Penn Badgley) drive through the streets of Manhattan, “wandering around with no idea what’s about to happen.”
And that’s the issue with movies like Margin Call, particularly post-Occupy Wall Street. With the effects of the 2008 financial crisis still profoundly affecting many of us, is it too soon to accept moral ambiguity on the part of the folks that helped cause it? Can the bankers be humanized?
Director J.C. Chandor wrote Margin Call in the days after Lehman’s dramatic failure, and, as he told the New York Times, wanted to understand the human side of a financial crisis, or “the decision-making process that got us into this mess....Everything in my gut said don’t lie here.” Chandor’s father was a Merrill Lynch investment banker, and he got to see the human side of the “Wall Street banker” firsthand, the ups and the downs. Thus, Margin Call is not intended to condemn the system, and if nothing else, it aims for a calm, realistic portrait of the industry. From the Times:
“A lot of what our film is really exploring is that it’s easy to vilify, it’s easy to moralize and judge and blame people for what happened,” Mr. Quinto said. “And not inappropriately, completely! But there’s also a whole swath of people who were just doing their jobs, who weren’t complicit in the decision-making process that led to all of this.”
That is, do we paint everyone in a large industry with the same brush?