Thursday, July 30, 2015

‘Margin Call’ takes different view of a firm’s failure

About the movie
Margin Call
MPAA rating:
for language
Running time:
Release date:
Zachary Quinto; Simon Baker; Mary McDonnell; Demi Moore; Paul Bettany; Kevin Spacey; Jeremy Irons; Penn Badgley
Directed by:
J.C. Chandor
On the web:
Margin Call Official Site

ONE OF THE strange features of the Occupy Wall Street movement is its slow-burning fuse.

The housing bubble burst in 2008, the bailouts followed immediately, and three years later, people finally took to the streets.

There are many reasons for this delay, but surely one is the complexity of the meltdown and the bailouts. You have to plow though at least 20 egghead-y books to understand why you are outraged.

This is the first scandal in history to come with a syllabus and reading list.

And the first protest to produce signs like this:

"It's wrong to create a mortgage-backed security filled with loans you know are going to fail so that you can sell it to a client who isn't aware that you sabotaged it by intentionally picking the misleadingly rated loans most likely to be defaulted upon."

How do you make a protest song out of that?

Or a movie?

"Margin Call" solves the problem by staying focused on a single day in the life of a Wall Street investment firm on the eve of the crisis - when the firm realized that its giant inventory of mortgage-backed securities is essentially worthless, and needs to be dumped before the rest of the world wakes up (figuratively, literally, as this occurs overnight).

A lowly risk analyst (Zachary Quinto) looks at the books and discovers the ticking time bomb, prompting a gathering of the firm's big shots (Simon Baker, Kevin Spacey, Jeremy Irons, Demi Moore, Paul Bettany), who plot strategy.

"Margin Call" isn't an inquiry into the specifics of the mortgage securities, derivatives, etc. It's more interested in the nature of institutions, and it shows that companies, like people, have an instinct for survival. The firm's CEO (Irons) decides that self-preservation is the goal, and all other moral issues are subordinate.

Scapegoats are fired, hardworking employees let go, and those who remain are handed bonuses for shoveling mounds of poop securities to unsuspecting clients.

Here is where "Margin Call" shows its pedigree - writer-director J.C. Chandor grew up in the home of a Merrill Lynch exec, and wants to show what the process looked like from the point of view of a Wall Streeter, those who held their noses and executed the firm's odious, economically destructive actions.

This does not excuse what happened, but it does humanize it, and that's always worth doing.

Cold comfort, surely, for those jobless and foreclosed-upon folks bobbing in the wake of the bailouts. They'll have to be satisfied with a documentary ("Inside Job," "American Casino") or another viewing of "American Psycho."

And yet, if you really look at "Margin Call" you can see Chandor making important criticism in small and subtle ways - that genius brains better suited to curing cancer are being squandered on zero-sum (or outright destructive) trading schemes, that compensation has become divorced from economic gain/productivity, and that the interests of Wall Street and Main Street are often unaligned. And when they are, Wall Street will save its own hide, every time.

There are ideas that should also occupy Wall Street, and these are a few of them.

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