Tag Archives: Kevin Spacey

A House of Cards Divided

houseofcards

“Want to know about politics in Washington?  Four words:  Watch your back, Jack.” – Admiral James Greer (James Earl Jones), Clear and Present Danger

Having just released its second complete season, House of Cards remains a meal that refuses to go down smoothly, no matter how sumptuous it might appear.  You can admire the artistry in the execution, but afterwards, you always feel like you need a shower – rather like looking at a painting hung in a porta-potty.  For years the optimism and hope of The West Wing was my lifeblood and so experiencing a show like HofC that responds to that philosophy by essentially defecating on it (again with the toilet metaphors, dude) will always be a fundamentally unsettling experience.  You just don’t want to believe that people are capable of that sort of thing, even though grasping the promise of the light mandates the acknowledgement of the existence of darkness.

WARNING:  Massive Season 2 Spoilers follow.  Abandon all hope (of being surprised), ye who enter here.

The sociopathic Francis “Frank” Underwood (Kevin Spacey) and his wife Claire (Robin Wright) are the focal point of that darkness, emerging from it literally as the first episode of Season 2 begins.  Frank has been appointed Vice-President of the United States following his elaborate scheme in the previous season that saw his predecessor maneuvered into stepping down to run for his old office of Governor of Pennsylvania.  There remain several loose ends, in the form of journalist Zoe Barnes (Kate Mara) and her associates, and call girl Rachel Posner (Rachel Brosnahan), both instrumental in Frank’s secret wheelings and dealings.  Rachel is whisked into exile by Frank’s majordomo Doug Stamper (Michael Kelly), while Zoe, growing increasingly convinced that Underwood murdered troubled Congressman Peter Russo last season, is dealt with in one of the most brutally shocking twists in episodic TV in years.  (How many other shows have the audacity to kill off the opening credits third-billed lead – played by a rising young actress – in a season premiere?)  Culminating in a closing shot of Frank’s monogrammed cufflinks (that read, unsubtly, “F.U.”), the implication to the audience is that this year, all bets are off.

And yet, oddly, they’re not.

Frank is back to business as usual, getting Jackie Sharp (Canadian actress Molly Parker), his preferred choice for replacement as Majority Whip in place, and driving wedges between the frustratingly naive President Garrett Walker (Michel Gill) and his mentor and friend of many years, billionaire Raymond Tusk (Gerald McRaney) by nearly starting a war with China.  Claire works on the First Couple from her end as well, cultivating a friendship with Mrs. Walker (Joanna Going) and motivating her to convince her husband to attend couples therapy – the revelation of which will ultimately prove politically toxic.  As with the previous season, the endgame for the Underwoods is never fully articulated until the closing moments of the final episode, yet there is a sense of inevitability about where the story is going that renders the proceedings a bit pat, and moot.  Compounding this notion is the fact that Frank always wins, and never at any point do we get the sense that he is in any danger of losing.  The only real consequence Frank suffers throughout the season is when his beloved rib joint has to close its doors – and nary more than a moment is spent ruing that.

Half the problem, and this affected the first season as well, is a budgetary one.  Spacey and Wright are major stars and don’t work cheap, and with their salaries devouring the lion’s share of the casting budget, the remainder must be spread around sparingly, resulting in a roster of supporting players who are well-meaning and capable but simply don’t have the raw wattage of the two leads, and can’t hope to outshine (or even strike within a country mile of equaling) them.  Gill in particular doesn’t have the gravitas we’ve come to expect in the portrayal of a President (no Martin Sheen he), and it’s difficult to keep in mind that this is supposed to be a man whom Underwood championed for the Oval Office, and supported without hesitation until being passed over for the job of Secretary of State – let alone one who managed to win a national election.  (Unless he was running against an anthropomorphic sheet of drywall.)

The other half of the equation lies in the writing of Frank’s adversaries, who for reasons of plot necessity allow themselves to be duped, make stupid decisions and side with the Underwoods rather than with the truth.  The animosity generated by Frank between President Walker and Raymond Tusk could have been swept aside by the long-term friends sharing one private phone call, but naturally, this doesn’t happen, and in the end Walker abandons Tusk to a perp walk after one dark-heart-felt personal letter from Frank.  It also strains credulity that a ruling party would be so quick to bring its own President up on impeachment charges, as is threatened in the finale.  Granted, in the show it’s the Democrats doing it (their real-life contemporaries ever ready to cut allies loose in the interest of political expediency instead of walking lock-step into the flames like the Republicans do), but you’d think at least one loyal Walker soldier might be able to assemble the pieces and realize that all the trouble originates from the moment a certain Mr. Underwood stepped onto the stage.  No matter – in the end, all enemies are swept or willingly step aside, Walker resigns, and a duplicitous double-murderer takes the Oath of Office, pounding the Resolute Desk in the season’s final shot in a gesture of either triumph or foreboding, depending on your interpretation.

House of Cards has been renewed for a third season, with rumors that it will be its last.  I find it difficult to imagine it could venture any further.  Once you’ve ascended the mountain, the only way to go is down.  I’m mindful though of the comments made by David Chase of The Sopranos, who scoffed at the idea that audiences should crave a comeuppance for Tony Soprano after they cheered on his spree of theft, betrayal and murder for season after season.  What will happen to Frank Underwood?  Like Dexter Morgan, there is no sufficient legal reciprocity for the magnitude of his crimes.  A mea culpa is beyond his capacity.  And it simply isn’t dramatically interesting to watch him keep winning battle after battle – the machinations of an untouchable god, become, after a time, unengaging television.

If you’re looking for clues to his demise, you can see seeds sown in the closing moments of this season’s final chapter, with Doug being killed and left to rot in the woods by Rachel, the end of a somewhat pitiable obsession with her that had developed over several episodes.  (That storyline reveals another intriguing notion about the portrayal of men and women, given that Rachel remains under Doug’s thumb until the split second she realizes that he wants her sexually – then his downfall begins.  A post for another time.)  If season 3 is to be The Fall of Frank Underwood, then the reason for keeping Rachel front and center in the storyline becomes clear.  Those who manage to undo powerful men will never be powerful themselves – they will arise from the unexpected corner, seemingly insignificant and non-threatening.  Not to be forgotten either is the besieged hacker Gavin Orsay (Jimmi Simpson) who begins to reassert his independence from the feds and has unfettered access to where everyone’s digital bodies are buried.  The advantage also of focusing on either of these characters is that they remain virtually the only two people in this corrupted universe you can find yourself rooting for – even though they have both committed crimes themselves.

Or, Frank’s undoing will come in the shape of his one indispensable ally:  Claire.  As the Second Lady, Wright seemed a little sidelined this season, particularly in its latter half, as her character’s journey took a backseat to the increasingly complex web spun by her husband.  But apart from one fleeting moment of remorse that when past hardened her heart even further, Claire remains as vicious as Frank and as dedicated to the idea of absolute power.  Two such identical forces cannot remain together forever, as anyone who’s tried to clap magnets against one another is well aware.  They have already shown, in the episode that climaxed (sorry, bad pun) in a threesome with their Secret Service agent Meecham, that either one of them is not enough for the other.  Perhaps the ultimate house of cards to be toppled is the Underwoods’ commitment to each other.

It’s telling about our nature that even in stories about bad guys, we crave the triumph of the good.  And good never wins on House of Cards.  Frank’s manipulations succeed at every turn because he has a gift for recognizing weak points and flickers of evil in others, and like the classic tempter, convincing them to make the wrong choice of their own free will.  The conventions of drama, however, lead us to wonder how this plays out.  Psychological need asks whether good will indeed crawl out from under the bed after taking a pummeling for two straight seasons.  The Sopranos, which chose an open ending with the scales of morality tilted permanently out of balance left an unpalatable taste in many mouths.  As much as TV audiences might relish watching Frank Underwood slice and dice his way to his diabolical goals, Americans as a whole likely aren’t comforted by the idea that such an archetypally evil person could manipulate his way into the Presidency in real life (regardless of your partisan opinions of occupants of 1600 Pennsylvania past and present).  They’ll want to see him go down, brutally, in a spectacular orgy of cathartic release, as charming as that come-and-go South Carolina drawl may be.  It might finally lend that terribly bitter pill a teensy touch of candy coating.

In any case, a question to be left to series creator Beau Willimon and his writing staff.  Besides, if I need my idealism fix, I’ll always have my complete West Wing DVD set.

Advertisements

Cat’s in the cradle

A fairly accurate representation of my state of mind.
A fairly accurate representation of my state of mind.

Most men first find out they’re going to be fathers when a little plastic stick turns blue.  While the mood swings and crazy demands that often accompany the pregnancies of their partners may give them the vaguest sense of the responsibility and adventure to come, realization doesn’t strike them until they first hold their little wriggling, blanket-swathed miracles in their arms and recognize that they’ve been thrust into an irrevocable new job with absolutely no sense of what to do next.  My journey to paternity has followed a different path; after struggling with fertility and even the question of whether we wanted to be parents at all, my wife and I decided that our family would expand through adoption.  That was well over a year and a half ago; between then and now came extensive training, invasive interviews, traumatic phone calls, a few thousand miles logged on the car, hopes both raised and dashed and a thorough exploration of every single point on the emotional spectrum.  Was it worth it?  Listening to my new son laughing when my wife chases him up the stairs after he’s stolen her slippers should be evidence enough.

Fatherhood was never really on my radar.  In fact, the very concept of the father and the son has been something that  I’ve thought and talked about largely in theoretical terms, relating it to imagery found in literature, cinema and religion.  In a way, that’s all I’ve had to go on.  My father died when I was eleven, and strong, positive and consistent male role models were largely absent from the years that followed.  Like President Barack Obama, I’ve had to rely on dreams of my father, the images growing cloudier as the years slip away.  And it doesn’t feel that long since the days of the smoke-filled dance clubs (back when you could still smoke in them), sharing crude opinions on the hotness of the assorted females with no greater aspirations for myself than a night of physical fun with a nameless partner.  Sometimes I wake up in the morning incredulous that I even managed to get married – how in the hell did I suddenly become somebody’s father?  Yet there he is, playing on his laptop and asking if he can watch Star Wars again.  Every time he calls me “Dad,” I have to stop myself from turning to see if he’s talking to the guy behind me.  Even after a mere three weeks together I’m humming the lyrics to Harry Chapin’s melancholy anthem about fathers and sons and wondering if we’re losing out on oh-so precious time.

My son was one of the thousands of older children living in foster care waiting for a forever family, because a large swath of potential parents looking to adopt, if not the majority of them, insist on babies.  They want to give their child his or her name, witness the first steps and first words and other milestones they can photograph and post for their Facebook friends.  However, fewer and fewer babies are available.  If you don’t have the financial resources to look privately or overseas, or you’re unable to take on a baby with a lot of special needs (and heaps of praise are due to those who do), you’ll likely see retirement cheques before you find an infant in the public system.  And as the years go by and so many of these kids linger on in foster, it’s almost as though they pass their “use-by” date.  Couples start to think that if no one has adopted them by now, there must be something seriously wrong with them.  But there isn’t.  Of course there will be emotional trauma that needs to be addressed with patience and love, and perhaps even a few minor medical issues, but for the most part these are kids like our son – a good boy who’s had a rough start to his life and just wants a mom and dad to love him.  And not to diminish the hard work of the many giving foster parents out there, but according to the National Center for Mental Health Promotion and Youth Violence Prevention, 40% of kids in foster care don’t graduate high school, and only 3% of them go on to any kind of post-secondary education.  These boys and girls need more than parents; they need relentless, even to the point of being obnoxious at times, bullhorn-wielding advocates who will scrape and claw for every precious inch of progress. They need a family who will never give up on them no matter how rocky the road gets.

Is that me?

There’s an exchange between Peter Facinelli and Kevin Spacey in The Big Kahuna that comes to mind.  Facinelli’s character, a junior salesman about to experience his first convention, says that it’s time to throw me in the water to see if I can swim.  Spacey retorts that no, we’re actually going to throw you off a cliff to see if you can fly.  Adopting an older child, a little person with his own name and with a personality already shaped and molded by total strangers is kind of like the Sanka of fatherhood:  instant and occasionally might not taste that great.  You do have to grieve the loss of a lot of those firsts, including the loss of the not-unsubtle desire to pass on one’s genes and traits, the loss of ever seeing what that indelible combination of you and your spouse would have looked like.  During initial weekend visits as the new family adjusts to each other before final placement, it feels at times like you’re just babysitting someone else’s problem, resulting in massive feelings of guilt when you feel relieved after he’s picked up on Sunday evening.  And you have to try and “deprogram” a bit of the stuff that you likely would not have encouraged had you been raising him from birth and replace it with hobbies and habits that you know will help him grow (i.e. perhaps we can cut back a little on the 10 hours of video games per Saturday and replace it with at least one hour of reading – no, doesn’t have to be Hemingway or Dostoevsky just yet – and put away the Nerf gun before we accidentally shoot the cat?)  But at the same time, there are still lots of firsts to look forward to.  First birthday and Christmas together, first date, first time driving the car. First overnight away from us.  Figuring out how to have “The Talk.”  Graduation day.  Heading off to college.  Watching him grow from this shy, awkward kid into the amazing, confident man you know he has the potential to be, terrified all the while that you’re just making things worse.  I suppose there is a term for all of that:  being a parent.

I didn’t have my father to guide me through my teenage years, so I have no point of reference on which to base how I’m going to do it with my son.  My father was long gone before I could talk to him about my huge crush on the beautiful blonde in the other Grade 6 class, or the boundless depth of my everlasting 13-year-old love for the 18-year-old brunette who used to drive me to band practice, and my utter cowardice in being able to verbalize those feelings to their subjects.  I want my son to be able to seize the moment and not be caught up in his feelings.  I want him to be able to avoid some of the mistakes I made, and yet instinctively I know he has to be free to make them and learn from his failure.  Put simply, I want to be the example I never had, and as I sit here typing this I’m increasingly doubtful of my ability to do it.  I’ve had a lot of friends and colleagues tell me how touched they are about our adoption of our son, and how lucky our son is to have us.  Yet I still feel like a bumbling idiot who’s doing everything wrong.  Chapin’s final words haunt me in my sleep.  I can’t figure out my own life most days.  Do I really want him to grow up to be just like me?

Perhaps the best advice is to draw from the Buddha (or Winnie the Pooh) and to just be.  To let the good times roll with the bad and to take each day as it comes without ruminating endlessly on the shape of the overall to the point that it distracts from the little moments that truly matter.  Without letting the perfect become the enemy of the necessary.  For better or worse, I’m this kid’s father now.  He is part of the legacy that I will leave behind long after everyone’s forgotten about little ‘ole me – a legacy that includes my father as well.  I may not be passing on my genes, but I can pass on my values, my beliefs, the things I consider important to cherish in our ever-so-brief walk across this world.  The same stuff I got from my dad in the times we were able to share.

Maybe one day my son will sit down and write a blog post (or whatever the new equivalent is by the time he’s ready for it) about what he thinks about becoming a father himself, and maybe he’ll praise or damn the example set by his old man.  Maybe he’ll understand some of what I’m feeling right now.  Maybe he’ll finally understand why I don’t want him signing up for that online game that requires a valid credit card number.  Maybe the stern looks and the lectures and the occasionally too-obvious frustration on my face will finally make sense.  Maybe he’ll think it was silly that I worried so much.  Sure hope so.  Harry Chapin tells us that the lives of a father and son are cyclical, repeating themselves in familiar patterns as each succeeding generation emulates the precedent it was shown.  What better advice is there, then, than to work even harder to be a better me?  I told my son last night that if he looks after himself he has a chance to see the dawn of the 22nd Century.  (Wonder if there will be phasers?)  The greatest gift I can give him is to do my best to ensure that he will watch sunrise on January 1, 2101 with a big smile on his face, secure in the knowledge that it was, indeed, all worth it in the end.  That’s what this strange concept of “fatherhood” has come to mean to me, even after just a few weeks.  In the meantime, I know when I’ll be coming home, son, and we’ll get together then.  You know we’ll have a good time then.

Do authors dream of electric typewriters?

A dime a dozen.
A dime a dozen.

Where do you get your ideas?  That’s a question that everyone who fancies him or herself a writer is asked by someone at some point, with either a look of wonder or disgust on the questioner’s face (hopefully, it’ll always be the former).  The Muse can be an elusive mistress; Lynda, my writing teacher, once advised that waiting around for her was an exercise in futility as she was more likely to dance just out of reach, laughing at you, and that you had to force her to the table by sitting down and starting without her.  In that respect, schedules and deadlines certainly help a great deal, as we all know that the easiest thing to do in the world is not write.

Finding a subject for a blog post is not terribly difficult, even if the writing of said post is.  There’s always lots going on in the world that we can comment on.  I’m of the “more flies with honey” and “current or future employers might read this” mentality, so I’ll usually stop myself from venting about whatever is pissing me off lately and try to either write something positive or find an optimistic take on a particularly frustrating news item.  (On a side note, my wife and I are watching the political drama House of Cards these past few nights and I’m finding it difficult to glom onto completely, for the singular reason that it is an utterly cynical program wallowing happily in the most selfish aspects of government service, and I’m much more drawn to the hopeful take offered by The West Wing.  But Kevin Spacey is still awesome.)  The blog, essentially, is a snapshot of how you’re feeling on any given day.  A novel, by contrast, is a long term exercise in exploring an idea to its every possible limit.  But which ideas are more deserving of the in depth treatment as opposed to the casual chat?  How do you know which is which?

The summer after my mother died, I chained myself to my computer and started writing screenplays.  That was what I was into at the time; for more on what led to this check out this previous post.  Like many, my first ventures into serious writing were fan fiction, and in my case, Star Trek fan fiction.  Although, I never managed to finish any of it – there’s an old hard drive rusting in a landfill somewhere full of the first chapters of stories about the crew of the Enterprise doing… well, not very much, actually.  I couldn’t plot worth a damn at the time; I always figured I’d get to that part later on.  What was more of a passion in the teenage years was drawing comic books, even though my artistic skill was minimal.  And those were always James Bond stories, because they were easier to plot out.  Bad guy doing bad thing, Bond must stop him, there’s a girl, a car chase, a gadget or two.  For a high school creative project I wrote and drew a 007-Star Trek:  The Next Generation crossover, where Bond is beamed aboard the Enterprise-D to help solve a Romulan conspiracy that involves his old adversaries SPECTRE, and along the way he manages to fall in love with Dr. Beverly Crusher (although in a downbeat ending, they have to go their separate ways).  My English teacher loved it, her only criticism that it was a shame that I wasn’t using my own original characters.  My rationale (read: excuse) was that using established characters freed you from having to introduce and develop your own, and enabled you to get right into the story instead.  I didn’t understand at the time that the key to solving my inability to plot was to instead let the story flow out of the characters themselves.

But back to that summer.  By that point I was using original characters, even if the dialogue they were speaking was almost entirely borrowed.  That was about the time Pulp Fiction had come out and, as a film student at UWO, you could not take two steps into your classroom without hearing someone invoke the mighty Tarantino.  I’d like to think that I wasn’t as obviously pretentious as some of the goatee-stroking, beret-wearing pomposities I sat in lectures with, but my work was just as derivative.  My first full screenplay was about a group of kids in film school, with exhaustive, profanity-laden monologues about the hidden sexual themes in Star Wars (which, if you’ve seen Clerks, sort of puts the lie to the idea that these were in any way original characters.)  I was still convinced that someday, someone would make this movie and I’d be accepting my Best Original (heh) Screenplay Oscar for it (then again, I was 20, recently orphaned and extremely naïve).  Once that one was done, I started another, and then another.  But they weren’t anything of note or even interest.  I began to realize that they had no lasting value – because they weren’t about anything; there was no there there.  And they certainly weren’t in my own voice.

The final screenplay was about a group of four 20-somethings who lived in the same apartment building (cough… Friends… cough).  I know, it sounds dreadful, but I really enjoyed spending time with these particular people.  As bad as some of those other screenplays were, they were an opportunity to hone my skill; to develop dialogue and subtext, to cut the profanity, to shed the influence of His Holiness Pope Quentin.  When I typed FADE TO CREDITS, I realized I hadn’t been able to develop the characters in the way I’d wanted – the screenplay was about 170 pages (most genuine ones top out at 120, maximum) and I hadn’t said everything I needed to with these people.  I decided to abandon it at first draft and instead turn it into a novel.  And for the next two years I labored on this thing on and off.  A great deal of my days were spent thinking about the lives of these people:  Bryson Reid, aspiring writer and perpetual smartass, Krista Piper, alcoholic figure skater, Scott Shipley, advertising executive on the rise, and Lauren Devaney, Irish barista homesick for her native land.  Part of Bryson’s story involved him meeting an entrancing and successful fantasy author named Serena Lane.  And interspersed between the chapters about Bryson, Krista, Scott and Lauren were meant to be “excerpts” of Serena’s bestselling novel.  The whole enterprise was designed to lead to a “shocking” metaphysical twist (not in the earlier screenplay version) whereby Serena was the same person depicted in the fantasy portions, who had somehow managed to cross into the real world (and it was the Irish barista, Lauren, who had authored the book in the first place, only to have it stolen by a manipulative publisher who was herself the villainess from the fantasy story and had also escaped from page into reality.  “Serena Lane” would turn out to be the name of the street on which Lauren grew up in Dublin.)  Anyway, it got up to 350,000 words with no end in sight.  As I was writing it, I found I was enjoying the fantasy portions significantly more than the real world stuff.  Bryson, in particular, although ostensibly the hero, was fundamentally unlikable and there were times I just wanted to smack him upside the virtual head.  But I still felt the need to finish it.

Then one summer, I signed up for a local adult education course called “Crafting a Novel.”  Naturally I knew how to write a novel, this was just a chance to meet some people (i.e. attractive, single women) with a similar passion.  The first night of that class was a smack to the head much larger than the one I had wanted to give my fictional hero – I knew nothing.  And I was crestfallen when Lynda told us that even if we had a book we had been working on for years, we were to set it aside and start a new one.  To borrow a phrase from William Goldman, this was the ensuing sound inside my head:

AAAAAAAAAAAARRRRRRRRRRRRRGGGGGGGGGGGGHHHHHHHHHHH

Surely she wasn’t serious?  My epic of Proustian magnificence deserved nothing less than endless streams of voluminous praise followed by a seven-figure publishing deal and movie rights!  How could anyone dare me to set it aside?

In retrospect, thank frickin’ Buddha, but we’ll get to that.

After picking my jaw up from the floor that night, I decided to think about things a little more rationally.  I’d slowly developed this fantasy world and enjoyed playing around in it.  Couldn’t I set another story in the same place?  And since prequels were all the rage, why not one that took place fifty years prior – something that might serve as a setup to the brilliance that was to follow?  That took care of the setting, but I still needed characters and a worthwhile story to tell.

A few days later, I’m in a video game store perusing the PlayStation titles, and I wander over to the PC rack.  There’s a game there, probably a precursor to World of Warcraft or something similar, and on it is a bunch of sketches of the characters.  One of them strikes me.  It’s a beautiful woman holding a mystical staff.  It’s nothing terribly original; do a Google Images search for “sorceress” and you’ll see thousands of variations on the theme – some gorgeous, half-dressed knockout hurling lightning from manicured fingers.  But something about it strikes me.  And I ask myself, what must it be like to be her?  Truthfully, the magical babe is a pretty boring staple of fantasy stories, either as a love interest, a physically unattainable spirit guide, or a cackling villainess bent on total domination of both the world and the hero’s crotch.  In anything I’d ever read or seen up until that point, she was always treated merely as an other to be conquered or otherwise overcome.  (Remember the witch in the first Conan the Barbarian movie?  Beautiful and exotic, as befits magical babes, but doesn’t get a name and is in the story for all of four minutes, three of which are spent rolling around on the floor with our favorite muscled Cimmerian.)  But if what would go through your head if you actually were a creature like that – would you go around thinking to yourself, “I am so willowy and ethereal and mysterious”?  Or would your head be occupied by the same mundane thoughts the rest of us have – what to wear tomorrow, whether you left the iron on, did you feed the cat?  After appearing and disappearing at will and turning men into pigs for a few hundred years, would you eventually grow bored with your powers?  What could the immortal sorceress who has everything possibly want?  Anything at all?  Or would she be subject to the same emotional needs and longings as the rest of us mere human beings?

And there was the seed of my new story.

Coming up in future posts – more on creating characters, developing the plot, struggling with description, crafting dialogue, the necessary pain of killing your darlings and how Aaron Sorkin helped me find my voice without even knowing I exist.

Quis custodiet ipsos numeros?

An emergency board meeting in Margin Call.

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.