Filmmakers imagine finance

Larry Ribstein —  14 November 2011

Margin Call is the best film to come out of the recent financial crisis. This is no polemic masquerading as a “documentary” (Inside Job) or good vs. evil melodrama (Money Never Sleeps). It is serious film, with superb acting, script, direction and photography, which uses the financial crisis as the realistic backdrop for a timeless story.

And yet the film is fatally flawed. Its serious qualities make more transparent its defects, which it shares with most films about business—filmmakers’ sour view of capitalists, which colors their view of business and perennially hobbles their efforts to make credible films about the business world.

In a nutshell: Eric Dale (Stanley Tucci), a risk management employee of a large securities firm becomes one of many casualties of a downturn in the firm’s business. On the way out the door he hands subordinate Peter Sullivan (Zachary Quinto) a USB drive. Sullivan, a rocket scientist who chose a career in finance, learns from this information that the firm’s substantial mortgage-backed security portfolio was based on a flawed real estate pricing model, and now threatens the firm’s financial soundness. Moreover, since the rest of Wall Street used the same model, the whole financial world is vulnerable (obviously an oversimplification of the causes of the financial crisis, but this is movieland). The revelation works its way up the corporate hierarchy, including executive Sam Rogers (Kevin Spacey), all the way to the top, CEO John Tuld (Jeremy Irons). Tuld and Rogers must decide whether to solve the firm’s problem by dumping the portfolio on its unsuspecting customers.

Unlike so many films about business, this one makes the business credible. The audience understands the setup. Though a few of the firm’s employees, including Dale, had an inkling this could happen, nobody acted on this information. The firm’s dilemma is also clear: selling the securities could save the firm in the short term but destroy it in the longer term because the firm will lose its customers’ trust. Hence the tension between the coldblooded Tuld and the conscience-ridden Rogers. This realism contrasts starkly with the hokey business scenarios in films like Wall Street I and II, which derived their limited dramatic power more from foreboding atmospherics than inherent logic.

Margin Call also differs from other business films in the depth of its characters and absence of obvious villains. There is no looming “corporation” that somehow is able to motivate its employees to behave like evil automatons. Here the corporation dissolves into its all-too-human employees.

Having shed the defects of the typical business film, Margin Call had a chance at greatness. Lurking in the film is an existentialist core, the story of how a crisis brings people to question the worth of what they are doing. While they were surfing the financial wave the universe was in a perfect harmony, where hard work created deserved wealth and happiness all around. But when the wave crashes their world loses its meaning. Finance looks like a zero-sum game, a way to transfer wealth from starving dogs to fat cats, as Tuld says. Nothing is immune. Dale laments leaving his former career as an engineer where he built a bridge that saved time and money. But his former subordinate Will Emerson (Paul Bettany) points out that maybe the drivers wanted to take the long way around. Rogers says digging holes would be better than what he does. At least he loves his dying dog and clings to it as his anchor. But then the dog dies and ends up in the hole he has dug. Where is the value?

In a better world, the film’s characters might have confronted the void and, possibly, found something to hold on to. But instead the deeper message vanishes leaving the simplistic point that the problem lies in the financiers and their sandcastles built of money. The characters are moral monsters obsessed with how much they and others make. When they flank a cleaning lady on the elevator we see and hear through her eyes their nasty conversations.

The characters’ search for meaning might, in this better world, have started with their jobs. But their self-rationalizations are lame. Tuld says, “It’s not wrong,” but the only reason he can offer is that “it’s all just the same thing over and over; we can’t help ourselves,” –followed by a list of years of financial crashes in recent world history. Will Emerson says, “If you really wanna do this with your life, you have to believe you’re necessary.” But the only necessity he finds is that “people wanna live like this in their cars and big . . . houses they can’t even pay for.” The film judges the characters for us — the cleaning lady, Rogers left with nothing but his dead dog, his childless woman subordinate, Sarah Robinson (Demi Moore) who threw her life away for an empty career, Tuld’s death’s-head face.

This is what happens to so many films about business. In my study of films about business and my law review articles How Movies Created the Financial Crisis and Imagining Wall Street I see a common theme: The artists who make films resent and distrust the capitalists who provide their money under the condition that the artists satisfy merciless markets that have no time for art. Of course the market’s judgment has to be shown to be irrational. So capitalism is often presented as a zero-sum game, where results depend on chance. Crashes happen, and people suffer. It has nothing to do with anything real.

In most business films (e.g., Oliver Stone’s Wall Street), this diminutive narrative of business shrinks the whole film: the characters are cardboard, the drama forced, the technical features marshaled to shore up the weaknesses. But since Margin Call is a serious film, its failure to fulfill its promise is more obvious. This film forces us to consider why filmmakers are so unable to reckon with the lives that so many Americans lead within large firms.

Perhaps the most prominent American filmmaker who could create a plausible narrative of big business was Billy Wilder. His films, such as The Apartment and Double Indemnity, had characters who found personal meaning even if some of their co-workers had not. But, then, Wilder was not subject to the anti-capitalist disease of modern filmmakers. He had not led his entire life in Hollywood or in movie theaters. His early years in Nazi Germany made him appreciate that free enterprise was not the worst thing in the world.

There was another story to be told in Margin Call, if only the filmmakers had been receptive to it. Finance is not basically a zero-sum game. It brings the resources together that create the worthwhile dreams that people do have. Where did the money come from to build Eric Dale’s bridge? The financiers who assembled the cash to build the construction and design firms were as responsible for the bridge as the engineers who worked for those firms. Financial engineering doesn’t create just instruments only rocket scientists can understand, but also the institutions that encourage investors to hand over their money.

If finance, even so envisioned, is worthless, then we can more readily believe that the rest of the world is, too. But we are also receptive to an existentialist construction of a reason to live. In the end, Rogers might have found that reason in constructing a financial solution to the financial dilemma instead of caving in to Tuld’s demand for a short-term solution that sacrificed both the firm’s customers and its own reputation. Or Rogers might have rejected this solution and taken the cash, just as Fred McMurray succumbed to murder in Double Indemnity. But at least we would have seen that finance gave him the same kind of choices that people have in other walks of life.

In the end the film can claim at least one important accomplishment. It shows that a realistic portrayal of business can be dramatic. Business does not have to be a generic prop. But it also shows that filmmakers’ anti-finance bias has real artistic costs. Filmmakers’ impoverished narrative of business can dilute the drama inherent in what so many people do with their lives.

Note:  This review was written for the Atlas Society’s Business Rights Center and was first published on their website.  My thanks to the Atlas Society for encouraging me to think and write about this film.

Larry Ribstein

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Professor of Law, University of Illinois College of Law

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