Marginal grip on reality

Published 18 January 2012 14:26, Updated 02 February 2012 05:16

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In Margin Call, bankers scramble to survive in a global financial crisis drama that is fuzzy on finance but goes some way to rehabilitating their image.

It’s one of a slew of films that have taken the GFC and attempted to translate it onto celluloid. But, as is often the case for Hollywood, Margin Call writer and director J. C. Chandor opts to tell a story about individuals and their choices set in a financial context rather than get into the details of how finance really works.

“High finance is an exciting, fast-paced and – seemingly – glamorous world that is an immediately appealing setting for many filmmakers, and a great place to tell a big story with classic themes,” movie magazine FILMINK editor Erin Free says.

“That story, however, is usually not actually about the world of high finance.”

Filmmakers often baulk at explaining the finer details of finance, since they are seen as too complicated to get across in two hours, Free adds.

“Because expositional or explanatory dialogue is seen as unattractive by most filmmakers, who usually like to keep the film going at a decent pace, they tend to offer the bigger picture rather than the finer details.”

The collection of GFC-themed films shows a Hollywood that is more sanguine about reflecting and exploring the misery of tough economic times as they happen. During the Great Depression, Free says, filmmakers focused more on cheap escapist entertainment. Films about the Great Depression, such as the The Grapes of Wrath, didn’t appear until a long time after the crisis had ended, he says.

For those after both entertainment and a better understanding of the economic malaise of our times, the standout among recent films is the excellent Inside Job, a documentary that powerfully illustrates the often cosy connections between financial services companies, government, regulators, and academics.

Another recent offering, The Company Men, starring Ben Affleck, shows what can happen when tough economic times bite. Meanwhile, Too Big To Fail, a drama based on a book by New York Times journalist Andrew Sorkin, is a fast-paced primer on what happened surrounding the collapse of investment bank Lehman Brothers. It focuses on global finance in detail, and the powerful people involved.

But where Inside Job is a valuable tutorial for anyone who wants to understand the financial crisis, its genesis and effects, Margin Call’s confused handling of the financial meltdown is likely to leave cinema-goers who are interested in both the subject and the story somewhat perplexed.

It starts with a cull at the bank and one executive hands a file over to his junior as he is marched out the door. The junior, played by Zachary Quinto, is – to employ a Wall Street cliché – an MIT-trained rocket scientist. He completes the work on the file and concludes that the bank is in big trouble. The plot subsequently follows the scramble to try to save the business.

Much of the story revolves around Kevin Spacey’s character, Sam Rogers, a Wall Street veteran who leads the trading team at the bank. As the bank’s problems force a sell-off of toxic assets to unsuspecting buyers, he is forced to confront his beliefs about the boundaries of right and wrong in business.

Jeremy Irons plays John Tuld, the bank’s top executive, as an old-style poker-player type who regards his job as working out which way the market will go and saving the bank at all costs. (It is no coincidence that his name is close to that of Richard Fuld, the head of Lehman Brothers whose fall marked the darkest point of 2008.)

The film attacks, from a variety of angles, the question of what value all these financial workers add to society. Its detailing of the remuneration paid to individuals is pretty accurate.

But Margin Call also lets the viewer ponder whether these clever people may have been better employed elsewhere. One character talks about how, before he joined the bank, he built a bridge that had saved people many hours of driving. Another, when it’s suggested he could have been digging ditches for a living, points out that at least then there would have been holes in the ground.

Margin Call may have a blurred grip on the complexities of finance, but it is entertaining and reveals that even a financial behemoth is just made up of people trying to make their way – facing tough choices as they do so.

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