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Credit-Crunch Films Like Margin Call Are Far Too Soft on Wall Street's Robber Barons

Posted: 16/01/12 00:00

The legendary French director Francois Truffaut once famously declared it impossible to make anti-war films because cinema inevitably makes war look glamorous. Having seen the timely credit-crunch drama Margin Call, which has just opened in Britain after a highly positive reception in the US, I fear the same can be said about Wall Street films.

A talk-heavy financial thriller spanning 24 crucial hours in the near-collapse of a Lehman Brothers-style Manhattan investment bank, Margin Call is the kind of middlebrow state-of-the-nation indie-style drama that strokes the ego of liberal critics and flatters the intelligence of Hollywood awards committees. Co-starring Kevin Spacey, Stanley Tucci, Demi Moore, Jeremy Irons, Zachary Quinto and Paul Bettany, writer-director JC Chandor's debut feature is certainly classy and smart compared to most Wall Street films. It makes a vague stab at unravelling some of the massive mathematical miscalculations behind the crash, and refuses to demonise individuals - which is fair enough, this is not a black and white moral issue.

Smart and bright and broadly sympathetic, the banker protagonists of Margin Call are not the overblown pantomime villains of Wall Street, American Psycho or The International. But Chandor goes further than cool-headed nuance and even-handed ambiguity. He also expects audience sympathy for his millionaire protagonists because their careers may be wrecked by an impending financial catastrophe they were complicit in causing. Some of these poor souls may walk away with only seven-figure pay-outs for bankrupting the global economy! Some of them, oh yes, even have sick puppy dogs to care for! What's that distant weeping sound? That's right, the plaintive tones of the world's smallest violin.

At one point in Margin Call, Bettany's super-rich playboy broker Will Emerson blames the crash on the greedy general public for demanding cheap mortgages and consumer goods. "People want to live like this in their cars and big fucking houses they can't even pay for," he sneers. "The only reason that they all get to continue living like kings is because we've got our fingers on the scales in their favour."

Living like kings? Perhaps Chandor is being ironic here, but it seems unlikely - Margin Call oozes Sundance-branded indie-movie earnestness from every frame, and Emerson is a fairly likeable character. Surely he cannot be referring to the millions of blameless citizens around the world thrown into real poverty by the reckless profiteering of a few hundred casino-bankers?

Ordinary workers, their debts already bloated by a bank-inflated housing bubble, whose jobs and houses and savings are now under threat? People whose entire earnings during their half-century working life will not equal the annual salary of a mid-level Wall Street broker? The real victims of this crisis are peasants, not kings. But peasants are nowhere to be seen in Chandor's gold-plated boardroom drama.

Because, at heart, Margin Call is apologetic propaganda for the apocalyptic wealth destroyers of Wall Street. For proof, look no further than the character played by Jeremy Irons. John Tuld is a charming, witty, patrician figure given to comically flowery metaphors likening the economy to a piece of music - an allusion to a famously ill-timed real-life quote by former Citigroup chief executive Charles O. Prince III, shortly before losing his job and writing off over a billion dollars in bad debt.

But Tuld is not actually based on Prince, he is a transparent alias for notorious former Lehman Brothers CEO Richard Fuld, aka the "gorilla" of Wall Street. Fuld reportedly earned half a billion dollars during his ruinous tenure at Lehman, then complained publicly when former US treasury secretary Henry Paulson refused the company a life-saving tax-payer bail-out. Boo hoo!

Fuld has so far escaped the jail term that many Wall Street insiders were predicting, but former Lehman vice president Larry McDonald has accused his ex-boss of "gross negligence" while a court-appointed examiner concluded that Fuld and his firm gave "a materially misleading picture" of their shaky finances shortly before they collapsed. Fuld recently topped a chart of the Worst American CEOs of All Time in Portfolio magazine, which cited his "belligerent and unrepentant" attitude to the financial crash.

Given the deeply unlikeable Fuld's obvious qualifications for Hollywood villain status, Chandor does him a great service by recasting him as a suave, self-deprecating, benign corporate godfather. Tuld also delivers the key speech of the film's final act: "It's just money," he shrugs after plunging the entire US economy into meltdown. "Pieces of paper with pictures on it so that we don't have to kill each other just to get something to eat. It's not wrong, and it's certainly no different today than it's ever been."

Well, maybe. If I read it right, Margin Call appears to suggest the biggest global financial crisis in a century was caused by a few brilliant but misguided Wall Street rocket scientists getting their very hard sums wrong in a noble quest to feed the insatiable appetites of avaricious consumers. Right. So... nothing to do with the massive mis-selling of junk-level toxic mortgages repackaged to look like prime investments then? Or the widely discredited ratings agencies being in the pockets of their clients, the banks? Or dubious, high-risk practises like naked short selling? Or countless more dodgy investment and accountancy tricks?

Not to mention the catastrophically lax "light touch" regulation regime drawn up by Wall Street and the Washington political elite they bankroll, an all-too-cosy revolving-door relationship which helps explain why Presidents and Prime Ministers remain so sluggish on reforming the banking system? Or the way corporations and banks ship their revenues offshore, paying little or no tax, but still expect eye-wateringly huge tax-payer bailouts to maintain their obscenely inflated "compensation packages" and bonus culture? So...nothing to do with old-fashioned greed and financial malpractice, then?

It is tempting to conclude Chandor is so keen to let Wall Street off the hook because he is the son of a former merchant banker himself, but that would be too simplistic. Oliver Stone, also a banker's son, peopled his Wall Street movies with rapacious reptilian sociopaths.

Perhaps we are back to Truffaut's quote about war films here - ultimately, American cinema just can't help glamorising wealth and success, even the kind of wealth and success that bankrupts the entire world.

Several times during Margin Call, Emerson and his colleagues compare their huge salaries, their lavish lifestyles, their new toys - are we supposed to drool over this commodity-fetishist bling-porn? Even in the midst of apocalyptic meltdown, film-makers continue to pay craven homage to the American Dream fantasy of unlimited wealth and infinite growth. In other words - business as usual.

The current financial crisis is a huge, morally complex, ongoing story that will doubtless spawn many movies in the years ahead, but no dramatic film-maker has yet managed to pin it down. So far, only Charles Ferguson's forensically layered, Oscar-winning 2010 documentary Inside Job has come close. You don't need to be a Marxist, or even a Michael Moore-ist, to realise there is something rotten at the heart of Wall Street. However humane or blameless individual bankers may be, the institutionalised culture of short-term greed and risk-free reward for failure that toppled the world into long-term recession has yet to be squarely addressed, both on screen and in the real world.

Margin Call is a decent enough piece of indie-movie drama, but it is jarringly wrong to expect audience sympathy for the super-rich architects of the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression. Behind their hand-wringing liberal angst, films like this ultimately ease the conscience of the 1% rather than the genuine fears of the 99%. I surely can't be the only one who left the cinema feeling short changed?