Crash Course: The 2008 Wall Street Crisis on Film

In an attempt to better diversify the content on this blog I’m introducing a new series of pieces I plan to write called “Crash Course.”  This is a rather casual series that will feature sporadically and will cover a wide range of topics.  With each Crash Course article I’ll look at something that’s been a blind spot in my movie watching and examine a handful of movies related to said blindspot.  Some of these articles will look at the works of a certain filmmaker, some will look at movies from a common franchise, and some will simply be looking at some films that all have a common theme. 

I was nineteen when I first heard that the housing bubble was going to burst, and I didn’t think much of it at the time.  It was something that I naively thought would amount to little more than a small hurdle in some Wall Street fat cat’s latest get rich scheme and that it wasn’t something I’d ever have to concern myself with.  Little did I know that two years later the economy would more or less take a nose dive because of this and that it would drag a whole bunch of similarly naïve people down with it.  For the next four years and perhaps into the foreseeable future this economic climate and the one percenter machinations that caused it have replaced the Iraq war as the go-to topic for topical “issue” films.  With more films like these on the horizon, like Martin Scorsese’s The Wolf of Wall Street, it seemed like a good idea to catch up with the various ways that recent cinema have decided to depict the frontlines of the economic crash in my latest installment of Crash Course.

 

Margin Call

WSMarginCallThe first of the four films about this topic that we’ll be looking at is Margin Call, a small film which came out in 2011 without a lot of fanfare initially, but which built an audience through a VOD release to the point where it was able to snag a “best original screenplay” nomination at the Oscars along with a bunch of “best first feature” awards from various award bodies.  It’s set in an unnamed investment bank the night before the 2008 crash and watches the various employees as they realize that the formula they’ve been working with was false and that everything was going to change within 24 hours.

That it would mainly thrive on VOD makes sense because this movie isn’t exactly what you’d call “cinematic.”  It takes place largely within the confines of a single office, is told mostly through dialogue, is set over the course of a day or two, and has a limited cast of characters.  In many ways this is a stage play that’s been brought directly to the screen; in fact it almost seems to hearken back to the days of live teleplays like “12 Angry Men.”  All of the film’s production value seems to have been wisely pumped into its cast, which features famous actors like Kevin Spacey, Jeremy Irons, Stanley Tucci, and Demi Moore.

This film is all about the feeling that people have when they’re looking into the abyss.  By the time the film starts everything is already in motion and all of these people are already screwed, but that’s something that they’ve only just found out.  Over the course of a single night we see the pressure mount for these guys as they move toward a very questionable tactic that will possibly save themselves while screwing over the economy at large.  The film does not forgive this company for the mess that’s been brought on because of their negligence and greed, but it doesn’t go out of its way to judge them either.  All the individuals involved are largely depicted as confused people caught up in something bigger than themselves who didn’t even know that for the last few years they’d been riding a nuclear bomb down to earth like Major T. J. Kong.

Margin Call isn’t a great movie.  It has relatively low ambitions given the subject matter and even at 109 minutes it feels a little longer than it needs to be.  Still, it chooses an interesting way into the subject matter at hand and does a good enough job of putting a human face on it.  It doesn’t make too much of a statement about the broader factors at hand in the economic collapse but there is value to its psychological insights.

*** out of Four

Too Big to Fail

WSTooBigToFailNo one makes better TV series than HBO and no one makes better mini-series than HBO and no one produces better comedy specials than HBO, but a ton of people make better two hour movies than HBO does.  Make no mistake, the made-for-TV movies that debut on HBO are better than the ones on most other networks, but they tend to be average at best when compared to films with actual theatrical releases.  That’s especially true now that they’re mostly just making skillfully crafted but ultimately bland “ripped from the headlines” fare like Recount, Game Change, and the film at hand: Too Big to Fail.

If Margin Call was about the calm before the storm, Too Big to Fail is about the people in the middle of the raging storm trying to save as many lives as they can before it’s over.  As such, this is a lot denser and more franticly paced than Margin Call and it also differs from that film (and the other films I’ll be looking at in this post) because it names names.  For the most part the film is a re-creation of what Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson had to do in the immediate aftermath of the 2008 crash as he tries to decide the fates of Lehman Brothers and AIG and ends with the passage of the TARP bill.

Too Big to Fail opens really hectically and pretty much throws the audience right in the deep end from the get go.  It took a while for me to catch my bearings, but I did start to get into it as it went along.  The film does a pretty good job of showing the audience why Paulson made the choices he did and why he felt like he didn’t have any other choice, even if the title card at the end suggests that the eventual choice he made had some very unpleasant side effects.  The film supports an all star cast and almost everyone play a real person who was involved in the events, and while most of these figures are not exactly household names, you still sense a certain authenticity to the various performances.  The film was directed by Curtis Hanson, but it’s decidedly less cinematic than the films he made in the early 2000s.  There’s no mistaking that this is a TV movie, but as an energetic re-enactment it mostly works.

*** out of Four

Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps

WSMoneyNeverSleepsOliver Stone was unquestionably one of the most important American filmmakers of the 80s and 90s, he had an amazing ten year run and no one can take that away from him, but pretty much every movie the guy made after Nixon has been underwhelming to some degree or other.  To his credit, he at least isn’t making large-scale disasters like Alexander anymore, but they have been depressingly average and unfortunately Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps is not an exception.  That’s a big disappointment because this seemed like a really good idea on paper.  The Wall Street Crash seemed like exactly the kind of topic that Oliver Stone should be making statements about and a sequel to his 1987 classic Wall Street seemed like the perfect vehicle to do it.  Maybe a little too perfect.  I feel like he saw an opportunity to be topical and snatched it up even though he didn’t really have all that many insights into the world of modern finance.

The original Wall Street was made during an era when the stock market was booming, and the idea of making a film that stepped back and wondered what was being lost in the process was much needed.  Stone and screenwriter Stanley Weiser positioned the film as a battle for the soul of a young stock trader played by Charlie Sheen, between the world of honest business represented by his father (played by Martin Sheen) and the world of unscrupulous junk-bond trading represented by Michael Douglas’ Gordon Gecko.  At its heart it was a simple morality play, but the moral seemed to be lost by a generation of young traders who were so swept up in Michael Douglas’ portrayal that they didn’t notice that he was playing the bad guy.

That film’s belated sequel seems to also be setting up a battle for the soul of a young trader (this time played by Shia La Beouf), but this time a seemingly reformed Gordon Gecko is on the side of “money isn’t everything” and a Wall Street shark played by Josh Brolin is on the side of “greed is good.”  When the film seeks to merely recreate the first film it mostly fails, it just isn’t all that compelling this time around and the actors involved don’t recapture the fire from the 1987 film.  When the film seeks to add new elements to the equation it doesn’t really work all that well either.  I don’t think Oliver Stone really has his finger on the pulse of contemporary finance and he doesn’t bring too many great insights to the table.  The movie’s also over-long and lacking in any truly memorable scenes or elements, but I don’t want to completely dismiss it as a failure either.  It seems to fall squarely in “nice try” territory.

**1/2 out of Four

 Arbitrage

WSArbitrageThis movie is less directly related to the specific issues of post-2008 Wall Street than I had been led to believe, but I think it still fits if only because it explores the same one-percenter mindset which caused the crash in the first place.  In the film, Richard Gere plays an entitled billionaire whose questionable business decisions are about to catch up with him.  On top of that, he finds himself under investigation for manslaughter after he tries to cover up a car accident that leaves his mistress dead.  As such he must dodge questions from a detective played by Tim Roth, his suspicious wife played by Susan Sarandon, and his daughter played by Brit Marling who also works at his hedge fund and is beginning to realize all the shady stuff he’s been doing there.

So, we have a guy who’s in a world of shit that’s almost entirely of his own making, and yet the audiences is along with him the whole way hoping that he’ll get out of it.  Why is that?  Well it’s partly because he’s turned a young guy named Nate Parker into a semi-unwitting co-conspirator, and we know that if Gere’s character goes down Parker’s character will go down with him.  I don’t know if this is intentional, but that may well be a very apt metaphor for the notion of “too big to fail.”  But there is more to it than that.  At the end of the day, Richard Gere does do a good job humanizing his character.  It may speak to our cultural biases, but as much chaos as these “banksters” cause both directly and indirectly it’s just really hard to look at them with the same distain that we have for a more overtly violent class of criminals.

Despite all that, I do think that Arbitrage isn’t quite the exploration that it could have been.  For one thing, I would have liked a more detailed look at exactly what Gere’s business malfeasance was and how it was going to affect people.  For the most part the film seems a lot more interested in the car accident investigation than it does with the corporate crime side, and that seems like a mistake to me, especially considering that a lot of the criminal investigation stuff was a lot more familiar and wasn’t too far removed from what we see every week on shows like “Law & Order” and “The Good Wife.”  The film is a good little morality play, but it never seemed to interested in shifting into that next level.

*** out of Four

 

So what can we conclude about Wall Street as a subject for films in the early 2010s?  Mostly that it has inspired a lot of well intentioned if not overly accomplished cinema.  In fact the quality of all these films have been in the “it’s mostly alright” range.  The best of the lot is probably Margin Call, which is a film which I may have been a little more generous too if I’d seen it last instead of first, but even that film is only a success on a rather small scale.  Too be fair though, I would probably have come to the same conclusion about the Iraq and Afghanistan wars as a movie subject if I’d rounded up all the movies about those conflicts sometime around 2008, so maybe the economic crisis is due for its The Hurt Locker pretty soon.

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