Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Happy At The Movies

MARGIN CALL, the new Wall Street movie, indirectly indicts Wall Street for our current economic mess, but that's not why I liked it. Starring Kevin Spacey, Jeremy Irons, Paul Bettany, Demi Moore, and Zachary Quinto, MARGIN CALL is in many ways similar to CONTAGION, which I also liked, and for the same reasons. Both films take on their subjects with quiet but deadly seriousness, avoiding swashbuckling and scenery-chewing. Both show professionals believably at work, although in CONTAGION these end up being (flawed) heroes, and in MARGIN CALL they end up losing what souls they possessed to start out with.

A margin call is a lender's demand on an investor who is using margin to deposit additional money or securities, because the broker is worried about the loan he made you to buy those securities in the first place. Margin calls are made when the lender thinks those securities you bought with borrowed money have decreased too much in value. Then you must either deposit more money in the account or to sell off some of your assets. If you can't do either very well, you are in deep shit.

The only weak point of this film is that unless you go into it knowing all that, you are likely to be lost for the entire first half. In a way, this is sort of admirable: the scriptwriters avoid artificial "As-you-know-Bob dialogue," in which characters tell each other things they already know. These characters do not. They look at graphs (which we cannot see) worked out by two junior members of the firm, and they get scared. We see the fear, but not the reason for it, unless you can relate the situation to the film's title.

What IS clear is the tension level of everybody involved throughout one long night while managers, CEO, and a few brokers decide what should be done. [SPOILER ALERT] The choices are bad: let the firm go under, or sell all the securities early the next day for whatever they can get, before word of the situation gets around, and knowing full well that they are unloading worthless assets onto unsuspecting customers. Guess which they choose?

All the actors are terrific, and Manhattan at night is visually arresting in an eerie and vaguely menacing way. See this movie. For anyone interested in character development, in finance, OR in ethics, it's a must.

1 comment:

TheOFloinn said...

Undoubtedly they made the same choice as would homeowners who keep quiet about the black mold or the leaky pipes or the decaying body of Jimmy Hoffa down in the basement when selling their house. Not many people would willingly throw themselves on the pyre for the abstract good.

It is nice to hear that the bad guys were not portrayed as Snidely Whiplashes looking for widders an' orphans to cheat, but as otherwise competent individuals caught in a desperate situation not of their making. (The loans to people with poor credit had been mandated by well-intentioned HUD regulations.) That's a point that Hollywood so often neglects: in the real world, even the designated villains believe they are making the best choice. (cf. The Nichomachean Ethics)