1980s. Wall Street. Greed is Good.
2010s (however we’re verbalising the number…). Margin Call. The financial system is f****d up.
How we’ve grown.
I really liked Margin Call. It’s perhaps not the greatest, most cinematic film on the planet, or even in the cinema right now (in a way, it’s like a play) – but it is smart, engaging, tense, full of characters who remain sympathetic while also being repugnant (played by some great actors), and has a debate that provokes a response but without manipulating you towards moral outrage. It lets you get there on your own, if that’s where your emotions and your brain takes you. It thinks you’re pretty bright (and, as the last film I saw was War Horse, which pulled every available emotional string, I really appreciated that). I really liked it, and I was really discomforted by it. It’s the kind of film where you come out at the end and you want to go away and put on some music, or some TV, or read some terrible teen vampire fiction, and pretend that the world isn’t largely in a terrible mess and that the way we do money is a huge part of that. However, it’s also the kind of film that challenges you not to do that – that challenges you to go out and live with this discomfort and to think harder and do better and to try and do something to make it better. Or at least to not hide away from it.
There’s a moment towards the end of the film where two sets of characters have two parallel conversations about what they’re about to do and the people they’re going to hurt. One, between Sam (Kevin Spacey) and Peter (Zachary Quinto) engages with the moral problem of what they’re going to do and the impact it’s going to have, acknowledges that they screwed up, they’re wrong, they’re about to do a whole lot of damage, but – ultimately – ends with them compromising on that and going to do the job they’re paid to do (and as Sam says, sadly, at the end, ‘And I need the money’…)
The other, between Seth (Penn Badgley, trying to shake Dan Humphrey hard, and doing pretty darn well) and Will (Paul Bettany) starts from how much money they make, silly money, and moves on to the Seth suddenly realising that real people are really going to get hurt, and he’s not just playing with numbers on a screen and taking home a quarter of a million dollars a year. And then Will says this:
“Jesus, Seth. Listen, if you really want to do this with your life you have to believe you’re necessary – and you are. People want to live like this in their cars and big fuckin’ houses they can’t pay for, then you’re necessary. The only reason that they all get to continue living like kings is because we’ve got our fingers on the scales in their favour. take my hand off and then the whole world gets really fuckin’ fair, really fuckin’ quickly and nobody actually wants that. They say they do but they don’t. They want what we have to give them, but they also want to, y’know, play innocent and pretend they have no idea where it came from. Well that’s more hypocrisy than I can swallow, so fuck ’em. Fuck normal people.”
And you know what. He’s right. In a lot of ways, he is right. People, by and large, do want to live with their cars and their big houses and their shiny tech, and they don’t really want to confront where it all comes from and what the hidden costs are, so they buy the lie from the money men that they can have all of this, and from the advertisers that they should have all of this, and from the politicians that they can give them all of this. And then every so often, reality bites really hard.
At the end of the film, Sam has a conversation with Tuld (Jeremy Irons) – the CEO of the company, where Tuld says, “There there have always been and there will always be the same percentage of winnera and losers. Yeah, there may be more of us today than there’s ever been. But the percentages stay exactly the same.”
But here’s the thing. What if we don’t want the percentages to say the same? What if we want to encourage people to stop believing the lie that Will is talking about? What if we want to ‘ground’ money – to stop the cost of living from going up and up and up (thus making us more and more concerned with making more and more money, even when it has less and less value), to say, actually, we would all be living in a better place if the housing market crashed and brought prices back to a sane place (and I speak as someone trying to sell a house – the question is, am I ready to make a loss for the sake of a saner society?). How do we do that. What do we talk about – how and where do we have those conversations, and how do we make the people with the power to make the chages listen to us (or start to take the power to make the changes ourselves) when we say, ‘Stop lying to us, stop telling us we want all of this crap we don’t really need and that it’ll make us happy, because it won’t, and stop telling us that you can give it to us at no cost to anyone else, because you can’t.’ How do we say, ‘Stop trying to fix the old system, because IT SUCKS,’ and build a new one that sucks less? And these are the questions I want to start trying to answer.