Friday, August 22, 2014

Margin Call (2011) v. Wall Street 2: Money Never Sleeps (2010)

Wall Street was an amazing film. Yes, it was Oliver Stone’s attempt to slander the 1980’s and Reaganism, but Stone misfired and what he created instead was a film that captured the thrill of the 1980’s and sent a generation of kids to finance school to become his villain Gordon Gekko. Since that time, Stone’s ability as a filmmaker has faded. In 2010, he went back to Wall Street to see if he couldn’t steal some of his prior glory. He couldn’t. The movie he created was overly complex, meandering and stupid. It stood for nothing really. The movie he should have made was Margin Call.

Margin Call is one of those financial films that will scare most people away just by its description: “Huh, some guys who create something called asset-backed securities find out their assets are worthless and they don’t know what to do about it. Shoot me now... let’s watch Transformers.” In reality though, this is an excellent film that is worth seeing, even for people with no idea what an asset-backed security is. Moreover, this film very simply explains what happened in 2008 and how the financial world came crashing down.
Margin Call begins when junior risk analyst Peter Sullivan (Zachary Quinto) discovers that a group of assets the firm holds are worth far less than they paid for them. They are worth so little, in fact, that the losses on these assets alone (which are bought on margin) would bankrupt the firm if the world knew their true value. And in that regard, Peter and his boss (Paul Bettany) realize that the world will discover the truth within days. They tell the firm’s higher ups.
This sets off a series of events as senior firm personnel are called in even though it’s late night to come up with a strategy to deal with this crisis. A strategy is slowly developed to dump as many of these assets as possible at the opening of the trading day, no matter what the loss on these sales. This will destroy the firm’s reputation and the reputation of its traders, but it is the only way the firm will survive. In the process of developing this strategy, the film does an excellent job of explaining what asset-backed securities are how the firm was blindsided by their collapse in value, and you see a good deal of infighting, moralizing, struggling with hard decisions, and the lining-up of fall guys and scapegoats. The end result is a surprisingly gripping film, driven by a strong cast: Jeremy Irons, Stanley Tucci, Kevin Spacey, Simon Baker, Demi Moore, etc., which gives you a fairly accurate insight into how the financial crisis of 2008 began and how it played out at its very beginning.
By comparison, Money Never Sleeps is convoluted fantasy. It is Oliver Stone’s attempt to make you hate Gordon Gekko the way he wanted you to hate him after Wall Street. Essentially, the story of Money Never Sleeps is that Stone resurfaces from prison and finds his estranged daughter (Carey Mulligan). He claims he wants to rebuild his relationship with her. Coincidentally, she’s dating Shia LaBeouf, who is a trader at an investment firm. Shia is trying to raise money for a nuclear fusion project which would provide the world with massive amounts of clean energy. Unfortunately, Shia keeps getting blocked by Josh Brolin, who runs another Wall Street bank.
Gekko comes to Shia’s aid by telling him that Brolin is the enemy. Brolin, coincidentally, profited from the collapse of Shia’s old firm, which also led to the suicide of Shia’s old boss. Shia seeks revenge by spreading rumors he thinks will hurt Brolin’s firm. Brolin is somehow impressed by this and bizarrely hires Shia. Shia takes the job because he wants to avenge his boss’s suicide. He then uses his new position to get the Chinese to finance the fusion project. Everyone is happy.

Shia then learns that the Chinese (through Brolin) have betrayed him by investing in solar panels and fossil fuels instead of fusion. He is sad again. Gekko then proposes an alternative plan. All Shia needs to do is to convince Gekko’s daughter to give Gordon access to the $100 million trust fund he left her in Switzerland, and they could fund the project themselves. Naturally, he agrees because this is for a good cause. Of course, the daughter agrees too... and then Gordon steals the money and re-establishes himself on the street as a hedgefund manager. This was apparently the plan all along, no matter how Rube Goldbergian it was. Gordon won’t even give the money back in exchange for normalizing his relationship with his daughter and his new grandson because HE IS EVIL, people!!! (“F*** you idiots need to finally see that! He used his daughter!! How much more obvious can I make this?!!” – Oliver Stone)
As this story stumbles along, we are told that the collapse of Shia’s firm started the financial crisis. This led to a bailout of Brolin’s firm, which Brolin got because he dines with the regulators. But don’t worry, Gekko’s daughter runs an obscure website and she publishes the story of how Brolin caused everything, which causes Brolin to give back $1.1 billion and puts him under scrutiny by the government. Then Gekko gives the $100 million to the fusion people and they all reconcile. Yay.

These movies couldn’t be more different. Margin Call is accurate. It is cutting. It is dramatic. You don’t know what is going to happen, but you can’t pull your eyes away from the screen as these people, who seem decent in good times, turn into sharks when things go wrong and they find themselves balancing their own futures, the existence of the firm, the welfare of the employees, the welfare of the market, and the harm to the country. Each of them handles this differently, and that makes them fascinating to watch as they struggle with how to survive this likely career-ending crisis.
Most interestingly, none of them were villains when they caused this crisis, but some now become villains... or are they? Indeed, while it is easy to see them as rotten, the real question you keep asking yourself is if you would actually do anything differently at this point. That idea makes this a truly soul searching, gripping story as you place yourself into the shoes of these characters and you wonder how you would handle being them. Would you be more noble? Is there even anything more noble you could do? What could you live with? What could you ask of others? These are all fascinating questions which are brought on by this film.
Wall Street, by comparison, is a joke. It has zero accuracy in terms of the financial crisis. It feels like Stone took a couple contradictory paranoid ideas, invented a villain, and then spun a fantasy which he thinks is damning but comes across as fringy and silly. He seems to suggest that the financial crisis is the result of a villain or two spreading lies about other company’s assets and thereby causing a panic. That’s ridiculous. At the same time, the story meanders on this point as it is only told to us in asides to the Shia v. Gekko story, and that story is ridiculous. The idea that Gekko orchestrated a plan which involved people being framed and fired and committing suicide and a nation-threatening financial crisis just to get at his daughter’s trust fund through her boyfriend is ludicrous.

The long and the short of it, is that I had no idea what to expect when I watched Margin Call and I found myself glued to the screen. This film felt like a mix of the best parts of Wall Street and Glengary Glenn Ross. It was tense, interesting, and informative. You feel like you understand the financial crisis so much better by the time the film is over and you find yourself both despising these people but wondering if you would have acted any differently. It is a brilliant film.

Money Never Sleeps, on the other hand, is a film you should skip. It is only a reminder of how much Stone has lost as a storyteller.



Kit said...

So... whereas Money Never Sleeps openly tells to you what you should think of the characters Margin Call leaves the judgement up to you, the audience?

AndrewPrice said...

Exactly. Stone presents a convoluted plot that never seems to find a point, and throughout he tells you constantly: "Hate this guy!" or "Pity this guy!" Margin Call never plays judge. It presents the characters in all their good and bad and lets each do their best to justify their own actions -- always mostly fairly. It leaves it up to the audience to decide who is good and who is bad, or if anyone is.

In fact, the film makes it clear that they genuinely believed in these investments. No one doubted their value and throughout they struggle with the idea that their world has suddenly changed so much. It's only after they learn the truth that they start to do bad things, but even that is debatable. As Irons puts it (paraphrase), "If I sell a competitor something I believe is worthless, but they think has value, and it turns out I am right, does that make me evil? Isn't the difference of opinion what makes a market?" It's a harsh stance, but morally, it may not be wrong.

shawn said...

Interesting, I haven't heard of Margin Call but it sounds like I wil have to check it out.

The last movie I watched of Stone's was Natural Born Kiillers and there is an interesting movie in there somewhere, but what Stone shot was a hot mess.

Been a while since I've seen Wallstreet and I remember it being entertaining, especially for Gordon Gekko's "Greed is good" speech, but I have to admit, it wasn't a movie that screamed "Sequel" to me.

Tennessee Jed said...

I absolutely agree with your analysis of Margin Call. Accurate, dramatic, hard-hitting and fast paced. To be honest, I was surprised because I didn't think Hollywood would make such a film about the financiall collapse of 2007. I didn't see Money Never Sleeps because it was predictable that it would be as you say. The fringe loves one of the Hill School's most infamous characters, and he is a good writer director who long ago lost his way.

AndrewPrice said...

Shawn, I don't think Wall Street screamed sequel to anyone, quite frankly. And I think the only reason Stone did it was that he saw a chance to exploit the financial crisis to try again to regain some fame which he's lost over the years. At this point, I don't think anyone sees him as nearly as talented as he used to be.

AndrewPrice said...

Jed, I was really surprised by Margin Call. I was expecting either a very dull film or a very preachy film. In either event, I didn't expect and interesting film. Instead, I found a surprisingly intense and gripping film that did an excellent job at putting you right into the middle of what happened and yet let you make up your own mind.

As for Money Never Sleeps, sadly, it was what I have come to expect from Stone.

Anonymous said...

I guess I'll have to check out Margin Call. It's one of those movies where it's like, "The real events were shitty enough, do I really need to see the movie version?!"

Wall Street 2 was never on my radar, except as an example of how far Stone has fallen.

AndrewPrice said...

Scott, Margin Call is absolutely worth your time. Wall Street 2 is not. In terms of the times being shitty, that's really irrelevant to this film as the film is quite good.

Koshcat said...

During your review of Margin Call, I was reminded of Glengary Glenn Ross, which I enjoyed. I will never look at Jack Lemmon the same way. I will have to look into it. Thank you.

I wasn't sure what Wall Street 2 was about but the premise didn't interest me. Now I will make it my goal to avoid it entirely much like Avatar which I can't get past the first 30 minutes.

AndrewPrice said...

Koshcat, Margin Call reminded me of a lower-key Glengary Glenn Ross as well. It's a little broader in terms of number of characters and not meant to be quite as intense, but it is similar in many ways.

I would avoid Wall Street 2.

AndrewPrice said...

p.s. You're welcome! :D

Tennessee Jed said...

I was prompted to pull out my blu-ray for a re-sreen. The lay-off scenes were chillingly realistic. Pretty much based on a combination of Goldman Sachs, and Lehman Bros. In some ways, I wish they had gone more into the Gaussian copula equations developed by David X. Li that had become the darling of Wall Street and caused the risk manager quantitative analysts to think they could properly price the risk on C.D.O.'s. Problem was the formulas didn't really work, and in retrospect, it is staggering to think people ever thought they would. But with the vast amounts being made, and real estate values going up like crazy, they simply couldn't help themselves.

John Johnson said...

Oh my, how different my view is from Andrew's. It's hilarious! Let me be short and point to my review on IMDB. I love writing reviews though I barely have time. So here it is and see why I'm not a fan of Margin Call.

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