Wednesday, June 12, 2013

"We Don't Cheat"

Margin Call is a star-studded acting tour de force of a film that explores the tipping point of the Great Recession. For the life of me I can't comprehend why I didn't hear much about it when it was in theaters or why it didn't generate greater at least a little Oscar buzz.

The opening foray of scenes in Margin Call toys intentionally with our movie formula assumptions. Eric Dale (Stanley Tucci) is fired but has a dangerous secret. Will (Paul Bettany), Dale's superior, shares what little sympathy he can muster, but they’ve all seen too many casualties to get too bent out of shape. Dale's young understudies feel the loss most. Is Will the villain, the insensitive prick who secretly worked to have Dale canned?

The scene shifts abruptly to introduce us to Sam Rogers, played amazingly -- and even with a fake face tan -- by Kevin Spacey, one of the best actors of the last 20 years. (Minor spoiler alert.) He sits, looking out from his office window into the heart of the Big Apple, and he weeps. Will enters and sits, witnesses Rogers’ fragile state and assumes what the viewer would, that Rogers is upset at the necessary but awful nature of “letting people go.” But Rogers is not crying for these people, but rather for his dying dog.

The moment is a gut punch. Lives are being forever altered, possibly ruined, by these masters of the universe, yet his heart is with his damn dog. Aha! I assumed this was our formal introduction to “the villain” of the story.

Later, in a gripping scene, CEO John Tuld (Jeremy Irons) owns the board room emergency meeting and ticks off his three ways to make a living in financials: Be first. Be smarter. Or cheat.

“And we don’t cheat,” Tuld says.

When the CEO of a major investment firm up to its eyeballs in trouble makes that statement, it’s usually the stuff of mockery. Is he being funny? Is it a dramatic irony kind of humor? Is he trying to get us to despise this man even more than we already want to? No. He’s showing us a man who made it to the top. And, the way Wall Street has evolved, he’s even being honest, to a degree. Wall Street culture has managed to provide so many loopholes and caveats to whatever rules were allowed to exist in the first place that they don’t even know what constitutes “cheating.”

I wanted so badly to jump into the movie and ask that question: “What would be cheating?” Because I suspect Tuld couldn’t come up with a specific answer.

He must be, I figured, “the villain,” and not Spacey's character, and not Bettany's character. This was the supreme bad guy.

One of art’s most important duties is to break us through our preconceived notions. Margin Call is an important film because it refuses to pander to an angry mob or spiteful victims, which is to say most of us watching the film. Almost all of us have reasons to loathe Wall Street and every $7,000 suit-clad worm who aided or abetted that system in the fleecing of our admittedly-tenuous financial security.

Wall Street is chock full of villains. Believing this makes things easier for me, as I watch my 401k too-slowly rehab its way back from a near-fatal crash, likely never to regain full use of its limbs the way it lived before 2007. I need to know that some Ming the Merciless was up there on the highest floors of a skyscraper, pushing buttons to ruin my life. It drives me nuts that one scandal after another affects all of us yet offers us no heads on a platter. “You mean after all that destruction, no one has to pay for it? No one’s going to jail or losing their job?” we say time and again. “That’s inexcusable!”

Unfortunately, sometimes the biggest bad is done by lots of halfway decent people. Sometimes there's no Darth Vader or Lex Luthor; there's just us.

I came away from Margin Call still believing that Wall Street is the pulsing embodiment of 1 Timothy 6:10, but that the stormtroopers and generals who populate and operate this gold-plated garbage compactor are every bit as human and humane as police officers, dentists, janitors, teachers.

In a tender scene later in the film, Tucci’s character fondly recalls his work as an engineer on a bridge in West Virginia. He rattles off, with accountant-like genius and zeal, the calculable impact of his good work. Zachary Quinto's character Peter also shunned life as a rocket scientist for Wall Street and admits it all came down to following the money. In an interview on the DVD, Quinto makes the potent observation (I'm paraphrasing), "The only real choice these characters had was whether to work on Wall Street in the first place. The rest was mostly beyond their control."

Which is why I'm hopeful that the latest news about Ivy League grads being less interested in Wall Street is the beginning of a long trend rather than a blip. I'm hopeful this young generation that often gets so much flack might be the first to wake up and actually believe there is greater good to be done in their world with their talents and intelligence than manipulating numbers on a global roulette wheel.

That might be the only choice they can make about Wall Street that does us any good.


Sean Valjean said...
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Anonymous said...

Oh please! The whole point of the credit crisis on Wall Street was that they DID CHEAT. The bond rating agencies were supposed to be watchdogs, but they were seduced into giving certain derivative products higher ratings than they deserved. Even though these bundles of mortgage backed securities contained "toxic" assets. By bundling a small number of high-risk mortgages into bundles containing lots of good mortgages, the "poison" could be spread around, just like the way we get rid of industrial waste. If the amount of "poison" was low enough, the product would not be toxic. At least that was what the bond agencies convinced themselves. Bond insurance would supposedly decrease the risk of these investments.
I had to laugh when I saw Zacahry Quinto's character and Jeremy Iron's character staring at their computer screens in horror at unacceptable levels of risk involved with these products and asking, "Holy smokes, when did THIS happen?!?!" Like they weren't behind the whole debacle. Sheesh!
You know, mortgage-backed securities used to be a decent product. They were basically money. But by adding little drops of poison, you change money into dreck.
And that point seemed to be missed by whoever wrote this stuff. I expected Jeremy Irons to give this really cynical speech at the end to the young naif played by Quinto. You know some really cleverly written speech like the one Ned Beatty gives in "Network." After all, why would you hire Irons, Hollywood's Prince of Darkness and not let him deliver the deeply cynical blow at the end?
"So, kid, do you still want a job here?" Fin.