Unlike most mainstream movies about high finance, Margin Call is a thoughtful and intelligent attempt to depict contemporary Wall Street from within.
What do real bankers think of their portrayal in Margin Call?
Bankers have never been Hollywood heroes. Even before the current credit crunch turned the global economy into a real-life disaster movie, high finance has long been a byword for low-life behaviour on the big screen. While gangsters, outlaws and even serial killers can be sympathetic characters, the rapacious reptiles and robber barons of Wall Street are almost invariably portrayed as cinematic villains. Boo! Hiss!
But perhaps this darkly glamorous caricature remains so attractive to filmmakers precisely because movie audiences feel such a contradictory mix of emotions towards bankers – anger and scorn mixed with envy and admiration. Launching Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps at the Cannes film festival two years ago, Michael Douglas expressed surprise at the perverse appeal of his character, Gordon "Greed is Good" Gekko. "We just never anticipated that all these people in business school would be ranting and raving that this was the person they wanted to be," Douglas said. "People are attracted to villains."
But there are no clear villains in Margin Call, a new Wall Street thriller that bucks the banker-bashing trend. Spanning 24 tumultuous hours inside a Lehman Brothers-style New York investment bank at the dawn of the current financial crash, the writer-director JC Chandor's debut feature is a low-budget ensemble drama with an impressively heavyweight cast that includes Kevin Spacey, Stanley Tucci, Demi Moore, Jeremy Irons, Zachary Quinto and Paul Bettany.
Unlike most mainstream movies about high finance, Margin Call is a thoughtful and intelligent attempt to depict contemporary Wall Street from within. The film's multimillionaire heroes are mostly sympathetic maths masterminds battling a financial storm beyond their worst calculations. This restrained, even-handed tone may be due to Chandor's family connections: the son of a merchant banker himself, he does not see capitalism as inherently evil.
"The film is certainly not an apology, it is just trying to look at it from a different viewpoint," Chandor argues. "I'm a believer that profit, when controlled and manipulated and regulated, can be a wonderful motivational tool for tremendous progress in the world. But I'm certainly stating that a corporate entity, left to its own devices, is always at risk of running amok."
Although many financial journalists and Wall Street insiders have praised Margin Call for its accuracy, some claim it is too soft on the super-wealthy one per cent at the expense of the other 99 per cent. In one scene, Bettany's millionaire playboy broker blames the crash on a greedy public for expecting cheap mortgages and endless consumer goods. Unsurprisingly, this is a message that resonates with real bankers.
"I do think culpability for the crash runs right through society," says William Jones, a former derivatives trader at a major Wall Street bank. "That is not to say the bankers were all blameless – that business has more than its fair share of bad apples and they inhabit a very competitive world where the main point of their existence is to make money. Some of them got too creative but I don't think there was much, if any, malicious intent."
This view is shared by Eric Benson, a UK-based hedge fund manager who was working on Wall Street at the start of the current crash. "How can you expect a for-profit institution to do anything other than to try to maximise profits?" Benson argues. "Bankers are an extension of our economic system, they are no different than someone who tries to make money however they do it, they have just been lucky enough to rise towards the top through fate or other factors. The government, I thought, was there to protect the public good. I think if anyone is to blame it's the regulators and the government."
Wherever blame for the crisis lies, Margin Call at least makes a small gesture towards explaining some of the tortuous mathematics behind the crash. This highlights a key problem facing any film on this topic: the daunting complexity of credit default swaps, collateralised debt obligations and fractional reserve banking. All crucial to the recent crash, but hardly material for great Hollywood drama.
"It's a complex topic," Benson agrees. "The general audience has been conditioned to have a very short attention span, and lots of action. That does not fit neatly into a mass-market digestible format. Also, not many, even in the machine, see the whole truth – so how could a filmmaker get there?"
The big screen has always had a complicated love-hate relationship with bankers. In Frank Capra's uplifting 1946 Hollywood classic It's a Wonderful Life, James Stewart's troubled hero is a small-town bank manager who is saved from suicide after learning how essential he is to his fellow citizens. But since the financial deregulation and huge booms of the 1980s, bankers have mostly been depicted on film as greedy, corrupt and often criminal.
The end of the 1980s gave us Oliver Stone's Wall Street, Brian De Palma's Bonfire of the Vanities and Norman Jewison's Other People's Money, whose slippery protagonists were back-stabbing brokers and corporate asset strippers. A decade later Rogue Trader, American Psycho and Boiler Room gave us bankers as fraudsters, bullies and even serial killers.
And yet glamorous movie monsters such as Gordon Gekko remain Hollywood staples – perhaps because, even in the teeth of financial meltdown, filmmakers still cannot resist the classic American dream ideals of wealth, luxury and status. After all, the big studios clearly have no ethical qualms about paying huge salaries to major stars and directors.
"Being rich is in vogue when the economy is good, but not when it's bad," argues Benson. "Being famous is always in vogue. Filmmakers will make what sells, and banker-bashing right now is what they want."
"I think the general hatred of bankers is because they are seen as parasites who make their money by juggling with other people's money," adds Jones. "Hollywood doesn't mind high-profile entertainers or 'creatives' getting rich because they feel they have done something tangible for the money, even if it is just looking nice. My guess is they are less happy about studio owners, financiers etc getting rich on the same business even though all contribute to the same end product."
Hollywood has yet to produce a definitive film on the ongoing financial crash, although many have tried. Michael Moore landed a few body blows in his scattershot documentary Capitalism: A Love Story, as did Oliver Stone in his bloated sequel Wall Street 2: Money Never Sleeps. But these were bombastic, simplistic, populist affairs.
So far, only the director Charles Ferguson's acerbic 2010 documentary Inside Job has come close to unpicking the multiple causes and culprits behind the current crisis. Ferguson won an Academy Award for his forensically layered polemic, and even earned grudging respect from Wall Street veterans.
"Inside Job was reasonably accurate about the information it showed," says Jones, "but very selective about it. I think they showed a lot of seemingly reckless behaviour and profligacy but tried hard to find a conspiracy that wasn't there."
The current global financial crisis is a sprawling, complex, ongoing story that is arguably too big or too recent for cinema to fully process. Margin Call is a decent effort, but so far no single filmmaker has yet managed to squeeze this huge subject on to the big screen. Inevitably, we will soon see more films on this theme. Meanwhile, of course, filmmakers will continue to feed our demand for greedy, glamorous, grotesquely wealthy villains. "There should be multiple views on this," says Chandor. "This is a topic that I don't think people should be afraid to make a film about. This is a conversation we should be continuing to have. We are not at the end of it, we are in the middle."
Margin Call is now showing in UAE cinemas