Margin Call, written and directed by J.C. Chandor, is a 2011 movie about the 2008 financial crisis that stars Kevin Spacey, Paul Bettany, Jeremy Irons, Demi Moore, Stanley Tucci and Zachary Quinto (who also produced). It features a topical storyline, some strong, subtle performances (particularly from Irons and Tucci), interesting characters and key ethical questions to be asked about the spiritual worth of the pursuit of money. It is also somewhat difficult to follow if you do not have experience in high finance. Characters drop references to commercial securities, asset valuations and market fluctuations so fast, without pausing for a breath to catch the audience up, that you almost find yourself wishing for subtitles. Even when characters make jokes about not being able to understand what they’re looking at, and plead for facts to be explained in plain English (or as Irons says at one point, as if one is speaking to a small child or dog), what follows remains untranslated biz jargon. Cobbling together what you do comprehend, you conclude that a major investment firm has gotten too greedy and has purchased too many high-risk assets that, due to changes in the market, are about to become worthless, necessitating a massive pre-emptive sell-off that will, in itself, precipitate a further worldwide decline, but may, it is hoped, save a portion of the firm. (I hope you got all that because I’m still trying to figure it out.) The moment this becomes clear is when Irons puts it into colloquial terms, declaring, “The music is about to stop and we’ll be left holding a bag of odorous excrement.”
One cannot help but be reminded of the Star Trek trope where one character proposes a long technobabbling resolution to a crisis, summed up by someone else with a much simpler metaphor: “If we reconfigure the deflector dish to emit a synchronous stream of alpha-wave positrons along a non-linear coefficient curve, we might be able to produce a stable gravimetric oscillation that would divert the asteroid’s course.” “Like dropping pebbles into a pond… make it so!” As tiresome as this became, it was done for a reason. When setting any scene in a foreign environment – be it another country, another world or simply an exotic office – the writer has to walk a tightrope between being truthful to the environment and servicing the demands of drama. The audience has to be able to relate to what’s going on in front of them, or it might as well indeed all be playing out in Mandarin Chinese. Yet you don’t want to dumb things down for mass consumption, and you can’t succumb to the dreaded “As you know, Bob” epic fail: characters stopping to explain things that they already know, and would have no reason to discuss given the course of their day. If you’re an accountant, are you going to spend any time explaining to your veteran colleague what a trial balance is? Is Alex Rodriguez going to pause mid-game for a five-minute exegesis with Derek Jeter on the infield fly rule? Nor does it make any sense for these experienced brokers to sermonize on the basics of brokerage. Usually a writer gets around this by introducing a “fresh-faced intern on his first day” who can ask the “business 101” questions on behalf of us dummies watching.
There are no interns or other such clichés in Margin Call, which chooses not to explain its dialogue in digestible nuggets for the masses. Characters in this glass-enclosed world debate, ruminate, decide what they have to do and proceed with their financial chicanery, complicit in what may turn out to be their own destruction. And after scratching your head for an hour and a half, you discover that what is sneakily clever about Margin Call’s screenplay is how it turns the incomprehensibility of its subject matter into a revelation about its subjects – the wheelers and dealers of the Wall Street world, men and women who are as much prisoners of an impenetrable capitalist system as those of us who can scarcely be bothered to look at our mutual fund statement every month. No one understands this stuff, not really; they just want it all to work seamlessly and invisibly to make them rich, which is part of what makes the system so vulnerable to collapse. Depressingly, here in the real world, four years on, the same cycle of greed has circumvented the installation of proper safeguards to ensure that these mistakes are not repeated. It’s too complicated, no one really gets it, they can’t be bothered, it’s trivial, that’s the other guy’s problem, the market will regulate itself as it always has. But the genie is long out of the bottle. In a moment of insight, Jeremy Irons’ character judges this world thus: “It’s just money; it’s made up. Pieces of paper with pictures on it so we don’t have to kill each other just to get something to eat.”
The problem is we are killing each other over these pieces of paper – we are letting the numbers control our lives, and as Margin Call demonstrates, no one is truly in control of the numbers. It’s all gambling, and as any experienced gambler will tell you, no matter how well you play, in the end the house always wins. I’m not sure who “the house” is in this case, but I’m fairly certain that it isn’t us.