Even four years later, the causes of the 2008 financial crisis are endlessly debated. Corporate greed, irresponsible home owners and overly complex systems are common scapegoats for the masters of speculation. Inexplicably, even over-regulation by the government is targeted as a cause of the worst stock market crash since the Great Depression. The current recession, which hasn’t ended despite rumors to the contrary, has had far reaching consequences—consequences that have been devastating for a large portion of Americans. No one has gone to jail, no one has taken responsibility. The buck, as they say, has been passed from company to company, agency to agency, and the various explanations have fallen flat as unemployment stagnates, the housing market struggles and the gap between the rich and poor stretches ever wider.
Last year, a very good film about the start of the crisis flew under the radar. “Margin Call” makes no accusations. It simply reveals the conditions present at one trading company that will ultimately have a powerful effect on future markets. The film gives a human face to the greed behind Wall Street, attempting to create sympathy for those who might not deserve it. And unlike the spiraling costs of the crisis, the film is now showing free on EPB Fi TV (and just debuted on Netflix).
Money seems to be flowing easily at an unnamed Wall Street firm. While there have been layoffs, the company is strong and bonuses are large. As a group of young executives celebrate their survival in a cutthroat financial industry, Peter Sullivan (Zachary Quinto) is working late. He is a risk-management analyst, tasked with calculating complex equations to create profitability in the face of enormous gambles. On the day of the layoffs, he is handed a thumb drive from his boss and told to be careful. What he discovers can lead to the destruction of the firm within hours. Soon, helicopters arrive, meetings are held and decisions are made. These decisions might save the company, but may doom the customer.
What struck me most about the film is how the filmmakers manage to tell the story without explaining the situation. There is a definite hierarchy of bosses, with John Tuld (Jeremy Irons) at the top and Sam Rogers (Kevin Spacey) somewhere near the top. Tuld is clearly the CEO, but everyone else’s positions are somewhat murky. This helps develop the nebulous nature of the business itself. You have to work in the financial industry to have any understanding of how it operates. And yet, despite this hurdle, the filmmakers are successful in creating an engaging and thought-provoking drama. There is a particularly interesting scene where a broker explains how he spends his $2 million salary. His list isn’t that much different than mine—it’s just that his numbers are larger.
And that’s what makes “Margin Call” such an interesting film. Wall Street executives aren’t evil, necessarily, they’re just human. They spend what they make. They do the job they were trained to do. Even those at the top are just making arbitrary decisions. Those affected are just part of the numbers they manipulate every day. It isn’t until they are faced with the consequences of their manipulations that the implications become real. After all, they rationalize, it’s just money. It’s made up, they say. But these inventions of value affect the world even more greatly than other social inventions, like religion or morality. It seems that every so often, the world needs to be reminded that these contrivances of worth affect the world as powerfully as a natural disaster.
I highly recommend checking it out. The performances are stellar, the subject matter important and the overall presentation satisfying. We need more films that are about something other than super heroes or love triangles.