Sunday, October 30, 2011

The best movie out right now

Sorry, assorted readers, for the unacceptably slow blogging as of late -- I'm currently in the process of solving all the conceptual ambiguities of the Fourth Amendment for my law journal article. This has proven a less agreeable task than I initially expected: I've sunk enormous amounts of time into writing atrociously fragmented sentences and drawing incomprehensible graphs and, so far, I don't have a lot of genuine progress to show for it. The price of hubris, I guess.

Also, I've been watching a lot of movies.

Which brings me to the real point of this post: you should go out, right now, and see Margin Call. Somehow, this film seems to have flown under the radar so far, receiving blandly positive reviews and very little attention from the general public. That's criminal: it's easily the best new movie I've watched in ages and ages.

Margin Call is another entry into the suddenly-burgeoning genre of "financial crisis retrospectives." It's set in spring of 2008, and it features a bunch of investment bankers dealing with the oncoming crisis. As such, it's likely to get lumped in with polemics like Inside Job and blow-by-blow accounts like Too Big to Fail. As a work of fiction, it's also probably going to be compared to the horrifically bad Wall Street 2. None of these comparisons is quite accurate, or fair. It's almost certainly the best of the bunch -- I wouldn't be surprised if it ended up being the best film about the financial crisis, ever, period. More importantly, though, it's not all that concerned with short-term political furors around and about Wall Street. While it doesn't shy away from the moral questions arising from the crisis, it's also more comfortable dealing with the personal than the political. It's less about the breakdown of the great financial machinery driving the modern economy, and more about what happens to the men and women caught up in the machinery when the world they've built begins to crumble.

My roommate made an uncannily astute comparison: he noted that the movie's closest cinematic relation is probably Spike Lee's fantastic 25th Hour, which managed to weave an intensely personal story focusing on a handful of friends with a thematic narrative about, among other things, racial tension, September 11th, the failure of the criminal justice system, and America's (possibly illusory) promise of new beginnings. Margin Call shares with that film a graceful ability to comment on the larger social context without talking about it directly. In both cases, the subtle approach pays off, leaving us with cultural documents disguised as engrossing works of fiction -- or maybe the other way around.

To be fair, Margin Call isn't quite as ambitious in scope as Lee's film, choosing instead to focus on the interplay of morals and money at the highest levels of professional success. It's still a joy to watch. The film never quite goes where you'd expect it to go -- quite an achievement considering everybody knows how the story ends -- weaving through the experiences of seven or eight main characters over the course of one very bad day, showing us the interesting bits and then moving on before anything predictable happens.

It's got verisimilitude in spades. While the film's basic conceit is straightforward enough -- an investment bank has gotten stuck with a lot of bad financial instruments, and needs to sell them all before it goes bust -- it doesn't shy away from Wall Street jargon. Rather than restricting all the nitty-gritty of the actual financial transactions to vague montages, a la Wall Street 2, it includes details where they belong, and trusts the audience to keep up. It doesn't oversell the situation, either: the characters are all justifiably freaked by what's happening around them, but the film dutifully avoids the apocalyptic overtones of, again, Wall Street 2.

(I almost forgot to mention the cast: the entire reason I watched the film in the first place is because it stars Stanley Tucci, but as it turns out, it also contains the best Kevin Spacey performance, uh, possibly ever. Also: Paul Bettany.)

The real genius is in the details. The way the characters are introduced in a parade of bosses, each cockier than the last, and each eventually humbled into calling the next guy up the chain. The little bits of dialogue serving double duty as character development and political reflection. (One banker obsessively compares paychecks. Another is an aerospace engineer tempted into finance by the money.) Two world-class monologues, which, in a just world, would replace Gordon Gekko's "Greed is good" speech as the rallying cry for unapologetic capitalism. The brilliant final scene, which reveals nothing about the plot but everything you need to know about one key character.

Really, I want to go on, but I don't want to spoil the whole thing. So just go watch it. Really. Go now. Hurry up.

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