Monday, November 14, 2011

Be First, Be Smarter, Or Cheat

John Tuld (Jeremy Irons) Both charming and dangerous, he is the CEO of a thinly fictionalized Lehman Brothers in Margin Call

It's been far too long since I last posted an entry here. I used to think the excuse of having no time after work was a pretty poor one, but I've reconsidered this. It can be a tough act to juggle work and life; especially when you're cracking the books to study for a GMAT (Generalized Management Admissions Test), which I'm writing in December.

Last weekend I treated myself to a break in the form of Margin Call, a thinly fictionalized account of the collapse of Lehman Brothers Holdings Inc. Written and directed by television commercial director J.C. Chandor, this flick gets my vote as the best movie I've seen this year. What we have here is a superb, slow boiling drama.

The cast is first tier Hollywood stars, all given great parts and superior dialogue here. First off is Kevin Spacey as Sam Rogers, a senior manager with the firm who is mourning the loss of his dying (symbolic?) dog. Sam's getting just a little tired of being a corporate blood letter for the firm after 34 years of service. In some ways the character is an inversion of American Beauty's Lester Burnham, who awakes midway through life to rediscover the joys and pleasures it has to offer. By contrast this guy is tethered to the firm by money, even when he's made up his mind to quit.

Then there's Sarah Robertson (Demi Moore) the firm's chief of risk management (and apparently the one responsible for firing most of the risk management analysts in the movie's opening scene). She's one cold, merciless taskmaster who follows the money like the rest of the 1 percenters she works with, standing out only because she's the only woman we have any real exposure to in this male dominated world of corporate finance.

Robertson and fellow employee Jared Cohen (Simon Baker), we learn, appear to have been equally responsible for creating the disastrous 'toxic mortgage' investments that went sour so quickly in 2008. 

After brief introductions to the main players, Margin Call's real action begins when new recruit Peter Sullivan (Zachary Quinto) does the final number crunching on a project his mentor Eric Dale (Stanley Tucci) was working on before he was fired. Turns out that senior management has been ignoring red flags about those mortgage assets for quite some time, and they're about to be left holding worthless assets that are, "greater than the current market capitalization of this entire country," according to Sullivan.

When Sam Rogers and the higher ups learn about these calculations, damage control begins. The knives come out as the principal characters realize what these calculations mean not just for the firm's future, but for their livelihoods.

Enter John Tuld (Jeremy Irons), a stand in for real life Lehman Brothers CEO Richard Fuld. Tuld arrives in the middle of the night by helicopter to chair a very early morning meeting where a decision is made to sell the toxic assets that threaten to sink his company. Irons is wonderful here - he deserves an Oscar for this role. In the film's most memorable line, he delivers a lesson about making money from financial investments. "There are three ways to make a living in this business. Be first, be smarter, or cheat."

What Chandor has done here is no small feat. The mood he sets and the dialogue, full of evasion and long silences, captures the powerful and wealthy at their most vulnerable, when the claws come out and the animal survival instinct takes control.


If you've even glanced at the news in recent months you couldn't have missed all the media coverage the 'Occupy' protests have been seeing. I haven't been taking part, but I do have a tip for the Occupy Toronto protestors. Please don't block the streetcar tracks when people are trying to get to work - you're just frustrating the 99 per cent by doing this.

That said, I think it's a good thing people are finally speaking up about this. Especially in Toronto the Good, where imagination and enjoying life often seem to be sacrificed. Speaking up about economic inequality is a good first step. The second needs to be articulating a vision of what the city could look like if there was greater economic equality and if people changed the way they treat each other. 

An articulate vision from the Occupiers will bring more people to the table. The more people who speak up and join, the better the chance of changing the world.

No comments:

Post a Comment