Margin Call (2011), or a Report on the Banality of Greed

So far, few movies have been as successful as J. C. Chandor’s Margin Call (2011) in portraying the events of the 2008 economic crisis. In fact, the movie achieves something only a few among the best films in history have ever been able to achieve, say, catching the Zeitgeist — the spirit of the time.

The film is about the events leading to the demise of an American investment bank during the financial crisis of 2007-2008. It’s modeled on the collapse of Lehman Brothers, the investment bank that filed for bankruptcy in late 2008 after big losses due to the subprime mortgage crisis. In summary, it tells the story of a group of executives who discover, with the help of junior analyst Peter Sullivan (Zachary Quinto), a flaw in the software the company uses to calculate risk. Due to this flaw, the company is now exposed to monumental losses should the value of its mortgage-based securities decreases, as it is believed most likely to happen. The discovery initiates a chain of events that mobilizes the upper echelon of the company, including its CEO John Tuld (Jeremy Irons). In order to save their own financial interests, Tuld and his head of security Jared Cohen (Simon Baker) made the decision of selling off all the company’s toxic assets before the market realizes the truth about those same assets’ real value. A decision that is opposed by Sam Rogers (Kevin Spacey), the company’s head of sales, who understands that in doing so Tuld is threatening the future of the company — no one will ever trust the company once they have realized what is about to happen — as well as spreading the risk throughout the whole financial system. At the end, Rogers agrees to help Tuld, after the latter offers him a substantial compensation.

Despite the apparent simplicity of its plot, Margin Call is a brilliant exploration of the ethos of modern day capitalist society. The word ethos refers to the set of beliefs and values that guide the behavior of the different members of a community. This ethos configures our particular Zeitgeist — say, our particular cultural and moral climate. Two words summarize this ethos: money and, ultimately, greed.

It’s all about money… isn’t it?

At first sight, money seems to be at the chore of all Margin Call‘s characters. For them, money seems to be everything. It is the fundamental unit they use to measure up every aspect of their lives — from success, to happiness, loyalty, and so on. For instance, when Sam learned that his dog has cancer and is going to die, he complains about the thousand dollars a week he is spending to keep his pet alive. It is as if this amount truly represents the sincerity of his feelings towards his dog.

A similar thing happens with Tuld. He knows he cannot demand loyalty from his subalterns. I suspect he wouldn’t accept it anyway — at least not for free. Loyalty for him should be translated into money. So, he buys it. He pays Eric Dale (just a few hours after he’s been laid off from the same firm) to come back to the company and sit there for a few hours doing nothing, so to prevent the former employee from leaking what is about to happen. He pays him well, since that’s the only way he can guarantee Dale’s loyalty. The same happens with Head of Risk Sarah Robertson (Demi Moore). Tuld decides that she is the head that must roll after the storm — although she reminds him that she was the one who warned both him and his protegee (Jared Cohen) about the coming collapse. He pays her as well, to buy her silence, at least for one day. At the end, Tuld buys Sam also, despite the fact that the latter will do whatever he can to serve the firm’s best interest — and it seems likely he would do it for free. However, Tuld doesn’t understand about loyalty unless it’s expressed in terms of money. So, he gives Sam a generous check.

There is this sequence in which Will Emerson (Paul Bettany), Sam’s senior salesman, is outside watching New York city from the building’s roof. He is there along with Peter and Seth Bregman (Penn Bradgley), another junior analyst. One of the analysts asked Will about what is going on, about what he thinks will happen. He replies: “they don’t loose money, no matter if everybody else does.” With “they” he means Tuld, Cohen, and all the top executives. They never loose money, no matter if by doing so they take their own company down — as they actually ended up doing — or take the whole financial system down, as it will probably happen at the end. The survival of the fit, of the job-creators, is the only rule in place. Every one is on his/her own. No one cares about what could happen to anyone else but oneself. The job-creators must survive even if it is a the price of millions of other people’s jobs. That’s the logic of it all.

In the closing scene, Sam is on his ex-wife’s yard digging a hole to bury his dead dog. When she comes out and warns him that the police was on its way, all he can say is that he couldn’t think of any other place to bury their pet but its former home. His ex-wife sees him in all his misery and decides to go back inside, asking him to take care of himself. The movie closes with a sudden black screen. However, although we can’t see anything, we still are able to listen to the sound of the shovel scratching against the solid ground. We can’t help to think about the metaphor of this last scene — a hidden shovel digging the hole we all will soon be buried in. We are left wondering who or what the dog itself is a metaphor of.

The banality of greed

Hannah Arendt once described Nazi criminal Adolf Eichmann — indicted and executed in Israel for crimes during the Holocaust — this way:

[He] was not Iago and not Macbeth, and nothings would have been farther from his mind than to determine with Richard III “to prove a villain.” Except for an extraordinary diligence in looking out for his own personal advancement, he had no motives at all. And this diligence in itself was in no way criminal; he certainly would never have murdered his superior in order to inherit his post. […] He was not stupid. It was sheer thoughtlessness — something by no means identical with stupidity — that predisposed him to become one of the greatest criminal of that period. And if this is “banal” and even funny, if with the best will in the world one cannot extract any diabolical or demonic profundity from [him], that is still far from calling it commonplace. It surely cannot be so common that a man facing death, and, moreover, standing beneath the gallows, should be able to think of nothing but what he has heard at funerals all his life, and that these “lofty words” should completely becloud the reality – of his own death. That such remoteness from reality and such thoughtlessness can wreak more havoc than all the evil instincts taken together which, perhaps, are inherent in man – that was, in fact, the lesson one could learn in Jerusalem. But it was a lesson, neither an explanation of the phenomenon nor a theory about it.

According to Žižek, violence may come in many forms. There is the subjective type of violence we see in assaults, torture, war, and all other physical violent acts. It is the type of violence Eichmann was indicted for. Also, there is objective violence. This last kind of violence may come in two different forms: a symbolic form and a systemic form. Symbolic violence is the type of violence embodied in “language and its different forms” — modern-day political campaigns are usually full of this kind of violence. Systemic violence is the “often catastrophic consequences of the functioning of our economic and political systems.” The Latin American Debt Crisis of the 1980s; the Great Depression, Stalin’s forced collectivization; all these are examples of systemic violence. The same applies to the events depicted in Chandor’s movie.

In the latter case, there were neither concentration camps nor gas chambers. The number of corpses were not as many as in Auschwitz, although the number of virtual casualties have been almost the same… so far. A parallel argument to the one Arendt made on Eichmann could be made of the people who participated in the 2007-2008 financial crisis. A similar depiction of the Nazi criminal could be given of those involved in this systemic act of violence. It was the same “remoteness from reality,” the same “thoughtlessness” that could “wreak more havoc than all the evil instincts taken together.”

The scene on the roof is a clear evidence of how Eichmannian these characters are. Will Emerson hangs on the edge of the building, risking a long fall, only for the thrill of it. There is no motives, no thoughts, no sympathy towards the others (Peter and Seth) who witness the stunt in panic… only a sense of power, the power of control, of having the last word. Tuld, at the end, admits that the whole thing is not really about money… it is power. But it isn’t power either; it is the hunger for more, the same drive towards the void that led Will on the edge of the roof. Money is just a vehicle, a fetish used to reach for what really moves them: greed.

If Eichmann was guilty of one form of banality, the banality of evil, the Tulds of the world are guilty of another, the banality of greed. The biggest achievement of Margin Call resides in having made such banality visible that it seems almost a caricature. However, fantasy here is the real thing, and the alleged real is just a fantasy.