The dual-review film criticism site: first a spoiler-free review, then an in-depth Alternate Take.
Margin Call: Notes on Hollywood and the Economic Crisis

Written by John Bleasdale.

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NOTE: This feature doubles as an extended Alternate Take for Margin Call. Read the short review here.

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When Oliver Stone’s Platoon arrived in 1986 to massive financial and critical success, it became a commonplace peddled by Stone himself that America had not previously been ready for a film on its painful intervention in Vietnam. The script had been written in the early seventies but backing was shy of what was still considered a downer of a subject matter. Of course, this was ignoring The Deer Hunter (1978) and Apocalypse Now (1979), and preferring to forget completely John Wayne’s patriotic The Green Berets (1968), made while the war was still in progress; but here at last was Vietnam itself told from the grunt’s point of view. The 'real thing'. Platoon was then followed in 1987 by Stanley Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket and John Irvin’s Hamburger Hill.

Stone’s follow up was Wall Street (1987), a film that gave us the first on-screen depiction of a mobile phone and Gordon Gekko’s ‘Greed is good’ speech. Charlie Sheen plays Bud Fox , a young trader who is seduced by power and greed and specifically by Michael Douglas’ Gekko into doing many wrong things. Re-watching it now, many flaws are apparent and not all of them can be retooled to satisfy a yearning for late eighties cheese. Daryl Hannah is famously awful, but Charlie Sheen is right up there next to her. In an emotional hospital scene with his sick father (played by his real dad Martin Sheen), we have a meta-moment worth savouring. Is Martin’s character looking away because of the emotion his son has brought welling, up or is Martin Sheen (the vastly superior actor) simply unable to watch his son’s horrifically poor performance? This aside, the film was audacious in holding up the accepted verities of high finance and capitalism to critical examination. Yet, in doing so, there was more than a little rueful admiration. Gekko comes off best, especially compared to Buddy Fox’s callow, snivelling weasel and even Fox Senior, the moral centre of the film, is a chain-smoking union man who is obviously not long for this world.


Capitalism, with a capital C, would occasionally get a passing mention in the odd comedy (Mike Nichol’s Working Girl [1988] or Richard Gere’s character in Pretty Woman [1990], for instance), but was rarely focused on again for some time. In fact, prior to Wall Street, the last film to deal with the topic of the financial sector with any sense of real engagement was the brilliant and edgy Eddie Murphy and Dan Ackroyd comedy Trading Places (1983), directed by John Landis. Wall Street, with all its flaws, stood out like a skyscraper, arrogant and vulgar, but at least there.

Today things are a little different. Wall Street (the place) has lost its anonymity and a lot of its shine, and has in the process become a target for protestors, popular political movements from both sides of the political spectrum, and the salaries and activities of its denizens are analysed and, in some cases, successful criminal prosecutions are beginning to take their toll. As for cinema, unlike the Vietnam War, topicality now seems to be everything.

Although pre-production had begun before news of the credit crunch and the near meltdown of the financial system of 2008, Wall Street 2: Money Never Sleeps - which had previously seemed an odd sequel to make - quickly took on a new relevance. The film tells the tale of a young broker Jacob Moore (Shia LeBeouff), who is in a relationship with Gekko’s daughter, Winnie (Carey Mulligan). Gekko has just been released from prison and is now pedalling himself as a born-again critic of capitalism, lecturing to campus and talk show audiences about the iniquities and downright stupidities of the financial sector. But has the leopard really changed his spots? Does Gekko truly believe what he’s saying, or is he biding his time to get back into the game?


Moore and Gekko collaborate because the old man feels the need to repair bridges with his daughter. In return for his aid, Gekko feeds Jacob information about Bretton James, the head of a rival firm, who he believes brought down the firm Jacob worked for and thereby caused the suicide of his father figure mentor Louis Zabel (Frank Langella). Langella has the Sheen role in the film, the moral core, representing the old ways. Never subtle, Stone places a massive black and white photograph of an American buffalo in his office, as if to suggest that Langella’s character is in danger of becoming a relic, extinct, a noble example of lost glory. Gekko’s response to the suicide is one of frank admiration: ‘He did the right thing’. And, as a matter of fact, research now suggests that suicides rates are increasing as a direct result of the financial crisis - and continuing in Greece, for instance. But high-profile CEOs offing themselves? It seems a crude and cynical bid for sympathy for the architects of the disaster.

In fact, the film does exactly what Gekko does. It pretends to criticise capitalism only to wait for the moment to make its play, rehabilitating Gekko (not the pussy-footing, bleeding-heart liberal Gekko, but once more at his worst) in the process. The film ends with familiar Hollywood calculus: the villain’s comeuppance, baby-mother-father-grandfather-grandmother reunion, and a bath of sentiment, stealthily ignoring the moral rot at the heart of it all. There’s a warning coda that this happy ending might itself be a bubble, which the ever-ambiguous Stone suggests by following a bubble floating into the air above Manhattan; but nothing is learnt, nothing changes, and Langella was, after all, a kind of relic, so maybe its best to move on. Jacob’s mother (Susan Sarandon), a shrill realtor who has got in over her head, goes back to nursing (not doctoring mind, nursing), and all is well with the world.

We should perhaps have guessed earlier on in the film that criticism was going to be contained, if not actually taken out the back door and shot in the knee caps. Why? Product placement and cameos by real life financial folk. Their cheerful compliance with the film, as well as deals with the conspicuous consumption of products of Heineken, Ducati and Bulgari show that this film had great potential to reinforce the very thing it ostensibly set out to attack.


The only ordinary people who appear in Wall Street 2 (and by ‘ordinary’ I mean people who don’t have conversations which include lines like ‘Why didn’t you tell me that your dad gave you 100 million dollars?’) are fleeting service types, good only for the ho-hum racism of the foreign cabby joke. In Margin Call, by contrast, there is a wonderful scene where Demi Moore and Simon Baker are in a lift discussing the possibilities that either one of them might be fired because of something they did (the legality of which we are to understand is open to interpretation). What makes the scene great is the presence of a third person, a cleaner, who stares impassively into the camera as the two players make threat and counter-threat over her head. She is not only unacknowledged, she is simply not seen, not registered - an invisible, almost abstract presence. She is the ordinary person who is occasionally mentioned by the film but who never gets a line.

Margin Call is a better film than Stone’s. A tense 24 hours in an investment firm, from a morning of ordinary brutality - the routine culling of staff - to an evening of ever-increasing panic and despair. One of the sacked hands a pen drive to a junior as he steps into the lift. It contains projections that show the company incredibly exposed with massive amounts of toxic debt on its books. The acting is in another class to any of Stone’s films. Paul Bettany, Kevin Spacey, Zachery Quinto, Stanley Tucci and the aforementioned Moore and Baker relish the terse, Mamet-like dialogue and equally terse silences. This is a thriller which relies purely on glances and words well said. The setting is an Olympian Manhattan skyscraper, all glass, steel and inhuman altitude, from which the despairing minor Gods occasionally seek to escape.

And yet, for all that, the criticism of the system is again skewed, here because practically everyone in the film is to some extent complicit. They all have regrets. Spacey’s sad-eyed old wheeler-dealer is worried about his dog who is dying of cancer (the moral centre of the film with almost Stone-esque subtlety). A plaid young yuppy weeps in a toilet stall because he’s going to lose his job. Stanley Tucci’s melancholy risk analyst seems to regret not having built more bridges - alas, he only built one. There come points in the film when you end up feeling sorry for all of them in one way or another.


James Berardinelli writes, ‘Margin Call is not political. It is also surprisingly non-judgmental.’ Of course, not being political about capitalism and its attendant disasters is impossible. Just to be clear, I’m not saying everything has to be political, but an economic system which is supported and founded on political principles is by its own admission political. Imagine making a movie about the holocaust which wasn’t political; which refused to take sides, which was even-handed. Not being political means tacitly endorsing capitalism. In fact, when Jeremy Irons gives a weary speech about the number of crashes that have preceded this one (each one catastrophic, each one survived), he lays down an idea that the film - despite positioning Irons to some extent as the villain of the piece - seems to be sympathetic towards; you get the feeling he is easily able to see what is the matter: that is crises are not some aberrant phenomena that can ultimately be perfected out of the system, but rather are part of the DNA of capitalism. Like those hedge fund managers who read Marx for the diagnosis but not the prognosis, the film lets out a politically apolitical shrug: the system stinks but, in Spacey’s words, ‘I need the money.’

Maybe this is in fact a problem with drama more broadly. We watch Macbeth kill all those people but he still gets to cap it all with one of the most beautiful speeches ever written for a character - ‘Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow’. Irons (who incidentally was a wonderful Richard II) might well have asked Kevin Spacey (superb Richard III) to sit on the ground and tell sad stories about the death of kings. This impulse, which makes for great drama, perhaps makes it impossible to land a killer punch. It simply isn’t its job. Rather like Wilfred Owen, drama in these cases is looking always for the pity: ‘the poetry is in the pity’.


In the made-for-television Curtis Hanson directed film, Too Big To Fail (2011), the entire emotional weight of the movie is centred on whether Hank Paulson (William Hurt) can sleep at night. An aide gives him some tranquilisers (‘I know you’re a Christian Scientist but…’ the aide says) and, having tossed and turned one night, Paulson heroically flushes the meds down the toilet. This is seen as a moral triumph, showing the man’s integrity when it comes to his imaginary friend in the sky. It’s almost a pity he’s so appallingly incompetent when it comes to being the Treasury Secretary of one of the largest economies in the world. This film verges on comic in the pirouettes it skips trying to make the facts of Paulson’s culpability and incompetence into a tongue bath, a hagiography of a man of backbone and leadership. At a moment of tension, Paulson retires to the bathroom to be noisily sick. His aides exchange glances of horror and sympathy. The poor man. What a burden he is carrying! This is the equivalent of glorifying the Captain of the Titanic as a maverick who wanted to cut down on the deadweight of lifeboats in order to make his boat go faster constantly being castigated by health and safety namby-pambies. (Incidentally, as with Wall Street 2, Too Big To Fail is itself crammed with product placement, the Coca-Cola cans often more in focus than the faces of the actors.)

This is the Downfall (2004) of Wall Street. Just as you can’t help feel a little sorry for Hitler because, you know, towards the end of the war, he was under a lot of pressure, so here we are gifted with the revelation that Barney Frank, Tim Geithner et al are human beings after all (we actually get to see what they eat for breakfast) - as if this makes much difference to the epic fail of their policies. And they are not just human beings, they’re the guy from Sideways (2004) and William Hurt’s steely blue eyes. These films lack all historical sense and this is engrained by Paulson’s repeated pleas not to play the blame game, or as he says, ‘let’s not rewind the tape…’


And this is where I would go back to Platoon, because Platoon wasn’t the first film to deal ‘honestly’ with Vietnam. The Vietnamese in Platoon, as in most American films about Vietnam (and in which they don’t marry Americans), exist in an analogous position to ordinary people in films about Wall Street: they’re shapes in the foliage, jabbering villagers, or an invisible lurking menace. We are the Vietnamese of these financial crisis films. Hollywood is serving Wall Street through and through. Just as Jarhead author Anthony Swofford wrote about how, before shipping to Iraq, the soldiers would get together for marathon war movie sessions, so Shia LaBeouf claimed that the vast majority of traders he met in his preparation for his role had been inspired in their career choice by watching the original Wall Street.

The exceptions to this argument - and perhaps they are the exceptions that prove the rule - are the documentaries. Charles Ferguson’s Inside Job (2010) and Michael Moore’s Capitalism: A Love Story (2009) don’t give a flying fuck about the humanity or otherwise of the people responsible for the crisis of capitalism. Moore takes sides with the ordinary people, those now calling themselves the 99%, and focuses his cameras on the dead peasants issue, among other things. Ferguson is more subtle and insidious in setting up his subjects to reveal how their self-justification knows little shame, and he is unafraid of turning an interview into an interrogation and ultimately accusation.


Maybe it’s just too soon for Margin Call. Maybe the pain is too fresh. Maybe we still don’t know the consequences of what is going on and what went on in Lehman Brothers, etc. But in fact the urgency with which these films have found financing and been put out could have another explanation. Maybe there is dilution in drama, misdirection. Jeremy Irons, as the veteran actor, is literally helicoptered into the film in order to save the day. His wit, his intelligence and his world-weariness is utterly convincing. We know we’d lose an argument to this man and men like him, so maybe when all is said and done, it’s better that a man like that runs the world, sail the Titanic etc, while we crouch shivering in steerage. His self-justification is marvellous and his position at the end of the film, still commanding a view of the city from an Olympian height, suggests that all is to some extent still well with the world.

This article was published on February 13, 2012.