Thursday, December 29, 2011

Margin Call

There has been massive literature on the financial recession that shook the world three years ago. However, not many movies have been made depicting the exact turn of events. Wall Street 2 was at most middling with the usual Oliver Stone empty bluster. First-time director PC Chandor’s Margin Call makes more than a decent attempt at plugging this ever-widening gap. In his fictional account of how Lehman Brothers bit the dust, Chandor shows how harrowing those 72 hours leading to the bankruptcy were.

In brokerage parlance, “margin call is a demand by a broker that an investor should deposit further cash to cover possible losses”. The large investment bank in the movie realises that it has too many junk bonds well past their sell-by date, which it can’t sell to the investors anymore unless it doesn’t mind cheating. Thus, this dictum: “There are three ways to make a living in this business: be first, be smarter, or cheat.”

Chandor’s camera is a fly on the wall and is uncomfortably close to the faces of the dramatis personae. The viewer is bound to feel the tension. There are no two ways about it. The bank’s chairman Jeremy Irons, who is modeled on, YES, Dick Fuld, delivers a masterly performance as the man who knows end is nigh but would still delude himself that a miracle is on the anvil.

Not just Irons, each actor, the bits-and-pieces ones included, perform their part with a gusto that these themes need. Chandor manages to give everyone sparkling dialogues. In the heat of the moment, Paul Bettany stands atop the skyscraper and gets philosophical with his subordinate Zachary Quinto, “When you’re this high, you’re not afraid that you might fall, you’re afraid that you’ll fall.”

In another delicate moment, Quinto’s colleague has an epiphany that he is just “pushing buttons” and making loads of money. “I might as well play roulette,” he says.

The movie’s denouement is equally heartrending when Kevin Spacey asks the brokers to go for the broke (pun not intended) and deceive their clients. When the game’s up and only one team of players knows that, it’s an absolute rampage. This is why the Occupy Wall Street protests fall flat on one level. This quote from Reuters journalist Felix Salmon should illustrate why, “Wall Street isn’t picking the pockets of the 99% and giving the proceeds to the 1%. It’s picking the pockets of the 1% and giving the proceeds to itself.”


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