Hollywood doesn’t have a great track record of transforming age-defining events into watchable cinema. Even where the narrative is relatively (if patriotically) straightforward – the Cuban Missile Crisis, the war in Afghanistan – there has been a shortage of engaging cinema.
When the tale to be told requires Fields Medal numeracy and there is little redemption to be found in any of the leading characters – regardless of their success or abject failure – it is doubly difficult. However the financial crisis is undoubtedly the story of our age; it requires constructive engagement.
“You’ve got to hand it to them on some level, because they’ve achieved something which probably nobody would have thought possible, especially to a country as big as America. So on one level they kind of need congratulating.” To see art in a crisis takes a particularly special kind of person; to recognise the entertainment value in it takes a slightly less grounded one.
Yet this was not some wit seeking levity in the financial meltdown, it was Damien Hirst praising the September 11th highjackers for their visual artistry. A subject which despite its similarly enormous reverberations has not yet produced work which captures its enormity – it is almost as though artistic licence has become trivialised by reality.
The alphabet soup of acronyms sold by the conglomerated greed of three decades of the Ivy League’s best and brightest is, much like the art Hirst sold, intelligible only if you’re comfortable with abstractions. The sums involved do not exist outside of the monitors wide enough to show them and the products sold were the supreme proof of Descartes famous principle. Meanwhile, the global youth reaction to an impending lost economic decade can be summarised with gifs of impassive loitering in public spaces.
In finance, as in art, originality is not in itself a virtue. There have been films with greater recognition and far bigger budgets, but few others have entertainingly depicted the reality of the financial crisis without political sensationalism, or provocative simplification as Margin Call.
In conversation with people who have worked in the higher echelons of US businesses, the film’s depiction of senior management ideologues is thought to be embarrassingly accurate. An environment where convention and the company line subdue any latent humanity in pursuit of ever more illusory lifestyle gains.
Amongst a stellar cast of Americans, Paul Bettany follows in the footsteps of Damien Lewis and Dominic West as an Englishman able to capture a distinctively American character. He is a gratifyingly cold-blooded incarnation of corporate greed; a man who tells brutal truths in the spirit of ego-eroding enlightenment; delighting in his role as both educator and executioner.
Despite a big name cast, the heavy hitters are, for the most part, out of sight. Jeremy Irons, Demi Moore and Simon Baker don’t appear until the final act, and of those, only Irons has a significant amount of dialogue. In fact, Baker and Kevin Spacey, deliver their best moments of the film in near silence – Spacey contemplating his own humanity as he buries his labrador and Baker, shaving, as the broken man he is about to fire tries to elicit some, any compassion from him.
This isn’t Sorkin and Fincher making a masterpiece out of another similarly difficult to film subject, but first-time director JC Chandor isn’t far off. It won’t be what ‘Wall Street’ was to the eighties, but it’ll be in the conversation.
Oscar-nominated Margin Call DVD/Blu-ray is out now