And Now, A Movie!

7 Nov

I know this blog is generally about books, and rarely do I use it to discuss other topics, or to promote my day job at Crain’s, but today I’m going to do a little bit of both because, well, because it’s my blog and I’ll do what I want.

Doubly-inspired by this New Yorker review and this article from Crain’s reporter Aaron Elstein, I took two hours out of my day yesterday to watch Margin Call, which has—despite the aforementioned press—flown generally under the radar. The movie is the latest tell-all take on finance, from the perspective of a 2007-ish investment bank that is “not” Lehman Brothers but totally is. Even though I’d been assured by multiple people that Margin Call may actually be the best movie about Wall Street ever made, I went into it with my bored face on, prepared to make peace with my own lack of sophistication and inability to appreciate good cinema. (At the same time, I chose Margin Call over multiple saved episodes of Millionaire Matchmaker, so just watching it was a small victory.)

It’s worth noting that I’ve always found the general resistance to financial news fascinating. We watch all manner of fictional movies and television shows—and read plenty of novels—about corruption, scandal and conspiracy. Meanwhile, some very wealthy real people have been doing some very shady shit to get us to this awesome place of 9% unemployment and political insanity, and yet many of us still dismiss the details as too confusing and/or boring to keep track of.

That resistance isn’t entirely unfair—it is rather difficult to use the word “tranch” in a sentence and not sound like a boring asshole—but I think it’s just an issue of perception. The financial sector can, I swear, be pretty riveting, a reality that’s born out in the media time and time again. Michael Lewis’s Liar’s Poker (which I read on Aaron’s suggestion) is named after a game traders would play on the floor that involved betting stupendous amounts of money on dollar bills’ serial numbers. Andrew Ross Sorkin’s  Too Big to Fail  is full of secret conversations between government leaders and executives of the country’s biggest banks. And Wall Street 2: Money Never Sleeps may have been a steaming pile of shit, but it’s 1987 predecessor was pretty awesome.

Whether or not it’s the best Wall Street movie ever made—I can’t say, I haven’t seen them all—Margin Call definitely does justice to the under-appreciated James Patterson-ness of financial news. The movie opens as dozens of employees are unceremoniously laid off at the bank’s mortgage division. One of few left standing, a lowly analyst (played by Zacahary Quinto) picks up where his now-fired boss left off on a project, and swiftly discovers a risk position that puts the firm’s entire existence in danger, to say nothing of the broader economy. The news quickly travels up the ranks to Quinto’s boss’s boss’s boss’s boss—the bank’s CEO, played by Jeremy Irons (whose performance is uh-maze-ing.)

Margin Call’s pop-culture equivalent—for the still-reluctant—is The Wire. It is similarly gritty, and writer/director J.D. Chandor’s adoption of the Wall Street jargon (which includes approximately 6 million instances of the word “fuck”) reminds me a lot of David Simon’s true-to-life interpretation of Baltimore police. Margin Call is also equally nuanced in its preaching: Jeremy Irons is simultaneously loathsome and intimidating, but also somehow awe-inspiring. An executive played by Kevin Spacey is unruffled by laying off 80% of his floor, but tears up over his dog’s illness. Two employees make thinly veiled efforts to blame one another for the company’s implosion while riding in an elevator with a completely clueless cleaning lady. Another analyst played by Penn Badgley alternates between general apathy towards the impending financial disaster, and casual ruminations on how much money his bosses make.

So, yes. Go see this movie (or rent it from the comforts of your couch, it’s one of those On Demand-while-in-theaters deals.) The cast alone—Zachary Quinto, Kevin Spacey, Jeremy Irons, Stanley Tucci, Demi Moore, Paul Bettany, Simon Baker—should give you a sense of the caliber, but more importantly (most importantly really) because I thought it was great.

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