I quite liked Margin Call, J.C. Chandor’s supremely confident and quietly sad look at a financial firm in New York that realizes it has some highly toxic assets and decides to dump them, destroying their own firm in the process. It’s a handsome, extremely well-cast movie that I think, taken with In Time, gets at the core challenge of getting the 99 percent and the 1 percent in conversation: how do you talk about systems that one set of people sees as wildly destructive that another set of people has invested considerable emotional energy in? I don’t happen to think it was a good investment to convince yourself the work of hedge funds and investment banks is critical, but people did.
Some critics have suggested that the movie humanizes members of the 1 percent, but I think that in a quiet way, it undermines the idea that wealth itself is particularly rewarding. Will Emerson (Paul Bettany) a division head who gets by mostly on his ability to project a sense that he’s indispensable despite the fact that he’s not particularly smart, runs through the way he spent the $2.5 million he made in the previous year, expenditures that range from clothes, to hookers, to $400,000 in savings, and it all just sounds incredibly dull. When Sam Rogers (Kevin Spacey), disgusted by the firm’s antics, tries to quit, his repulsive boss (Jeremy Irons) pulls him back in by making his vested investments in the firm conditional on staying for two more years. Quietly Sam admits that even though it sounds obscene, he has no choice but to stay because “I need the money.” Money hasn’t gotten these people anything, or more precisely, they haven’t done anything interesting or fulfilling with it: these folks don’t run off to private islands, or devote their millions to curing cancer and making themselves heroes, or just enjoying themselves. Instead, they’re set on a grim circuit of real estate, loud bars, fast cars, and late-night emergency returns to the office. Their dogs still die. They even drink liquor out of paper bags.
The movie keeps coming back to the idea that the characters could have been doing other things, Frank Sobotka-approved genuinely productive things. Peter Sullivan (Zachary Quinto), the analyst who discovers how much trouble the firm is in, turns out to have a degree in rocket science. I suppose it’s a good thing he spots the toxicity of the assets when he does, or at all, but it’s hard not to believe that his contribution to humanity might be more significant elsewhere. Similarly, Eric Dale (Stanley Tucci), the risk analyst fired in the movie’s first scene who gives Peter the hint that leads to his discovery, turns out to be a bridge-builder who has calculated the number of years he’s saved commuters from sitting in their cars. That’s a concrete benefit, unlike anything he’s done sense. The bridge freed people to enjoy their lives, and Dale responded by giving his up to abstractions.
That said, Margin Call may make a cultural argument, but it doesn’t particularly suggest a structural one, other than “listen to the folks who do your risk analysis.” It doesn’t advocate revolution or redistribution, like In Time. It’s not a revenge fantasy: Sam Rogers may bury his dog, but nobody dies or goes to jail, and some of these folks are going to recover, finding similar jobs in the same industry after temporary exiles. Nobody gets to off Bernie Madoff for the sickening thrill of it. This is a movie that suggests we can’t escape our quest for wealth even when it hurts other people, and even when it doesn’t bring us anything fulfilling.
And of course, that’s not true. We could regulate the financial industry much more than we do. We could shift our values. We could encourage people with rocket science PhDs and engineering credentials to do that work rather than heading off to jobs that don’t make the most of their talents. It’s one thing to acknowledge that such shifts are quite difficult. It’s another thing entire to suggest they’re impossible.