Movie review – Margin Call: A small movie unveils big truths about Wall Street

[EDITOR’S NOTE: At this writing, Margin Call is playing in these area theatres: Allentown – Civic Theater of Allentown; Bethlehem – ArtsQuest Center at SteelStacks; Reading – GoggleWorks Film Theatre]

by Jake Bernstein, ProPublica

J.C. Chandor has embraced Rahm Emanuel’s dictum “never let a serious crisis go to waste.” The 37-year-old writer and director used the financial crisis as a springboard to create the most insightful Wall Street movie ever filmed. Margin Call captures a day in the life of a Lehman Brothers-like bank as it scrambles to avoid falling into the first cracks of the financial crisis. Briskly paced and marvelously acted, the movie reveals how large financial institutions operate and the motivations of the people who work within them.

Margin Call should not be confused with journalism. It is not a precise overlay of the financial crisis. You’ll never hear the words collateralized debt obligations uttered in the movie. As the reporting I did with my colleague Jesse Eisinger showed, the Wall Street behavior that helped create the financial crisis was often much worse than what’s depicted in the movie. Chandor isn’t looking for villians or lengthy explanations. He’s mining deeper truths than the intricacies of credit default swaps. The societal costs of high finance, the power of self-rationalization, and the easy embrace of personal corruption is his terrain.

As reporters covering the beat know, Wall Street is a reluctant participant in introspection. Journalists investigating the Street have to pierce a code of omertà, borne of the fear of lawsuits and federal investigations. No one wants to have the reputation of being a snitch in an industry where hiring and bonuses are based on relationships as much as quarterly results. The truth is even more tightly held when it hides the origins of financial disaster, but even in the best of times, these are not, by nature, navel gazers. Traders and market makers are like sharks, always wanting to move forward, onto the next deal. There is no percentage in looking back.

All you need to know about the moral universe Margin Call inhabits is on display in the opening scene of the movie. The downturn has begun. The firing squad — represented by two women in identical business suits — arrives on the trading floor trailed by underlings carrying cardboard boxes to cart away personal effects. When they come into view, a series of swift reactions plays across the face of Will Emerson, a senior trader acted brilliantly by Paul Bettany. First fear. Then dismay. And finally, relief and dismissal. After 80 percent of the floor is axed, Emerson’s boss, Sam, a wan Kevin Spacey, gives a pep talk to the traders left standing. “They were good. You are better. Now they are gone. They are not to be thought of again.”

Among the casaulties is the risk manager for the trading group, Eric Dale, played by Stanley Tucci. On the way out the door, Dale tells his young protege, Peter Sullivan, that he has been working on something important. As the elevator closes, he hands Sullivan a zip drive and says cryptically, “Be careful.”

Spoiler alert: This article discusses key scenes from the film.

Click here to read the entire review and comments.

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