Last night I went to the cinema, which I rarely do nowadays, and judging by the size of the audience for the movie that I and my friend saw, not many other people go to the cinema these days either. The place, in the heart of the London West End, was damn near deserted, apart from us and about three other people. Actually, though, the problem was probably the movie we were seeing, as I will now explain.
The movie we saw was Margin Call. Here is a short Rolling Stone review of it, which strikes me as pretty much on the money.
Okay: SPOILER ALERT. Stop reading this very soon if you don’t want the broad outlines of the plot handed to you on a plate.
When I started watching it, I knew nothing about Margin Call other than that a friend of the friend I was with had said it was the best current financial crisis movie he knew of. This makes sense. Margin Call is very much a trader’s eye view of the moment when the first of the waste matter started to move seriously towards the fan, around 2008. And, remarkable to relate, it actually shows “capitalism” (the quotes being because we all here know how government-intervened-in all these sorts of market have been) in a by no means wholly bad light. I am not a bit surprised now to have learned, the morning after, that this movie was written and directed by an ex-trader, a certain J. C. Chandor.
Plot approaching. Final warning. Okay. Bad things are happening at a Wall Street institution of the kind that has lots and lots of computer screens, at least two for each worker. Stanley Tucci is being fired. But just before he is escorted out of the building with his ritual cardboard box of belongings, he hands a memory stick over to a younger colleague, which reveals things about that waste matter. Basically, the mathematical model of risk that the firm has been using for the last few years is in the process of being proved wrong, and the firm is about to be destroyed by the extreme worthlessness of the “assets” it holds. It has taken risks that were far, far too big, and leveraged them insanely. It is about to be wrecked. (For the details of such blunders, try reading this book.)
This is where the action gets truly interesting. In a regular Hollywood movie, this bad news would be suppressed, by villains, and during the rest of the movie, culminating in a huge political crowd scene, these villains would be identified and either themselves killed or else publicly humiliated. Stanley Tucci would jump off a skyscraper to his death, or would be murdered. Major goodies would fight – in several scenes literally fight – to reveal the truth. By the end the ultimate villain, capitalism, would stand accused of having screwed everyone, the villains having all asserted their belief in free market economics and the goodies having also mentioned their preference for state intervention to ensure fairness, justice, etc.
What the script-writers of such junk would want to say at the end of their piece of junk would be something along the lines of: Nationalise – or maybe now globalise – the top hundred “banks”, whatever a bank is these days. Put us and all our idiot lefty friends in charge of everything, and all will be well. But actually saying that would be too ideological. Owners of potential bums-on-seats, who buy and sell other stuff for a living and who grasp that putting idiot lefties in charge of everything is idiotic, might stay away. Plus even the idiot lefty scriptwriter tendency must now suspect, what with the twentieth century and all that, that a world run by them and their idiot friends would be an idiotically evil shambles, rather than any sort of answer to anything. So instead, the idiot lefties end their idiotic tale with a general air of doom, with hints of redemption, a romance maybe, a son united with his long-lost father. You know the kind of dross I mean.
In this movie, events take a quite different turn. The whistle blowers are not set upon by gangsters. Instead their message is attended to. It is fed rapidly up the chain of command, all through the night after Stanley Tucci has been fired. A lot of “fucks” are said, but voices are seldom raised. Instead the bad news is faced, and acted upon. They decide to stage a fire sale of all their dodgy assets, and duly sell them at a huge loss the next day (in a scene right near the end of the movie which lasts hardly a minute) to people who are also going to make further huge losses.
In short, capitalism, having made some truly horrible blunders, does its job. Instead of sweeping the bad news under the carpet, capitalism tries to work out how to minimise its losses. The supreme boss, brilliantly played by Jeremy Irons, states at one point that you make money in this business either by being smarter, by being first, or by cheating. With a combination of all three, he leads the rescue act. His underlings having been smart enough to spot what is happening, he decides to unload his toxic assets at a huge loss and thereby get out the door first. The cheating takes the form of not telling the people they sell all the toxicity to how toxic it is. The sellers will never be trusted on Wall Street again, and will end the next day being fired, so they get huge pay-offs.
There are no heroes or villains, or at any rate no villains who do anything conventionally villainous other than some of them talking with British accents. The Jeremy Irons character is only a baddie if you already think that such people are bad. The power that his enterprise exerts over those it employs, and from time to time terminates, is only scandalous if you consider people consenting to very tough and chancy working conditions in exchange for way above average remuneration to be, in general, also scandalous. There are no suicides, although suicide is flirted with by one of the characters. There are no murders. Throughout the movie, everyone talks of people who have been fired as having “died”, as in: forget them. But the only character in the movie who actually does die is Kevin Spacey’s dog.
And there are no noisy crowd scenes where guys in braces and white shirts scream down telephones in a huge chorus. After all, the whole point of the fire sale is to postpone such craziness until the sale is done.
A higher reach of capitalism is shown, in other words, not as an out-of-control mob, but as an intelligent conversation among intelligent people who are willing to accept the personal consequences to them of their blunders and to deal with some of the consequences of these blunders as best they can. They know that the bad news, which they have decided to pass on to the world (with their actions if not with their words during the fire sale) just as soon as they themselves have worked out how bad it is, is going to be very bad indeed. But it is in their interests to pass on the bad news (almost) as quickly as they can, which they do.
These guys were grabbing off huge amounts of money for what turned out to be the time when they were making all their worst blunders. The Jeremy Irons character apparently got 86 million dollars last year. He will lose a large chunk of his huge fortune, but by no means all of it. So if you want to interpret all this as capitalism being evil, you won’t have any problem doing so.
On the other hand, there is no talk of any politicians being dragged in to rescue things, i.e. to do what politicians do, which is suppress bad news until they have worked out how not to take any of the personal blame for it themselves. The contrast between what happens in this movie and how politics works is made very clear, for any who are inclined already to note such contrasts. Politicians deal with problems by fudging them over a period of months, years, even decades. Capitalists deal with their problems pretty much over night. In this movie, this is literally what they do.
I guess this is the kind of story that only a very few people want to be told, hence perhaps the emptiness of the West End cinema we were in. This despite the movie having been nominated for an Oscar for its screenplay, a fact I learned here, at its official website. Warning: there is stupid music at that website. I learned from this website that this movie, because of its lack of “action” and of huge and insane crowd scenes and despite the star or near star status of several of its lead actors, only cost just under four million dollars, i.e. less than a twentieth of the Jeremy Irons character’s take-home pay last year. Despite the emptiness of the cinema I saw it in, Margin Call has already made money. Good, because that means that J. C. Chandor will presumably get the chance to make more movies.
On the subject of music, all great movies – and this one is at least a very good movie – have their own special atmosphere. A key atmospheric ingredient of this movie is not, as I say, noisy hysteria. Instead we contemplate the musically unaccompanied silence of the night. But music features prominently as a metaphor, that silence being the point. Jeremy Irons says that his job is to listen to the music, and from where he stands, there is now no music. It just stopped. The economic news from now on, in other words, is going to be very, very bad. Music, as in actual music, is used very sparingly in this movie, and all the more tellingly because of this. The only really assertive music comes when Kevin Spacey is asleep in his chair at about 5 a.m., and it stops abruptly when he suddenly wakes. It’s a great classical piano piece that I recognised the tune of and know perfectly well but could not name. Chopin, I think, but dammit, I can’t be sure. This, and the fact that I don’t really quite get the movie’s title, were the only irritating things to me about Margin Call.