The 2008 financial crisis has assumed its role in economic and social history, and continues to get ongoing momentum from the severe recession it created, as well as the ongoing social protests.
Yet while there has been extensive analysis of the misdirected and Frankenstein financial engineering which precipitated the recession, not much is known about the types of people who helped create the current economic crisis in the first place.
That has been rectified in the new film, Margin Call, which provides great character studies of the different types of people who work at a fictionalized large investment bank (possibly Lehman Brothers?), and their various jobs and personality types. Without giving away the plot, the movie tracks events in a single night when a lower-level trading analyst gets a zip drive from his newly-fired superior. The drive contains data showing the trading room’s positions alone could produce losses that would exceed the entire firm’s market capitalization.
But that’s just the theme. The film’s strengths are in the great character portrayals of the senior executives, risk managers, junior traders, who are forced to confront the inevitable: their firm is going down and they now face the ethical dilemma of selling the toxic financial instruments to other unknowing firms, or holding the bad assets and going out of business.
Film As Social Commentary
It’s a modern story, and true to life; the characters are all obsessed with money, how much they and others earn, and whether they will be well-compensated in the future, or even have jobs. The New Yorker called Margin Call “one of the strongest American films of the year and easily the best Wall Street movie ever made.” What gives the film legs is the ongoing story in the news today, including the ongoing demonstrations against unequal economic opportunities.
Margin Call shows how a special class of traders and management divvy up their access to huge pools of leveraged money that essentially provide no economic value. It’s also a class of financial instrument that is financially engineered, so it generates returns in specific market circumstances. These are not the types of investments (most commonly variations of over-the-counter derivatives) that are even remotely accessible to the public. These are monetary opportunities reserved for an exclusive group.
The film also raises serious ethical questions about knowingly selling defective products to unsuspecting buyers, as well as how these firms have become disassociated with everyday people. In short, the film is entertaining and disturbing. It raises questions which will nag at serious viewers long after the movie has ended.
This film should also be seen by people who hold marketing and PR positions in the financial services industry. There are fews ideas as powerful as an idea whose time has come, and this film is one more expression associated with the public’s disillusionment with the old ways of doing business.
Margin Call, written and directed by J.C. Chandor, starring Jeremy Irons, Kevin Spacey, Stanley Tucci, Zachary Quinto, Demi Moore, Simon Baker, Paul Bettany.