The film Margin Call takes us inside the foul-mouthed, high finance world of the one per cent. The low budget production, the first from writer/director J.C. Chandor (the son of a stockbroker) went from the Sundance Festival to theatrical release (also on iTunes, and Video on Demand) just in time to validate the Occupy Wall Street movement. It has just been released on DVD.

A tale of how investment bankers perform in a crisis, the Chandor film relies on stimulating viewer intellectual curiosity, plus top-draw talent (Jeremy Irons, Kevin Spacey, Demi Moore) for its appeal. No skin, no sex, no violence, no blood, no fancy sets, just dramatic tension as bankers in nice suits try to make others pay for a mess they created themselves.

The film opens with a number of investment bankers being terminated by order of their bosses. A risk management specialist is taken out of his modest office by a kindly, attractive female human resources officer, and brought to meet with a second tough talking female from HR. He receives a severance offer, and loses his office phone, cell phone, access to his computer, keys to his filing cabinet, and is handed over to a security guard who will allow him to pick up a few personal items from his office, and then accompany him out of the building.

When he tries to explain to HR that he is working on something important, he gets a response straight from the termination manual: it is not your problem any longer.

The problem turns out to be that the bank has been insolvent for a number of days going back a week. The mortgages it has been bundling into securities have been going bad faster than they could be sold in an orderly way. The solution provided by the CEO (Jeremy Irons) is to dump the entire portfolio on an unsuspecting market, knowing full well that the impact would be to kill the mortgage securities business, and leave the firm’s clients holding the worthless products packaged by the bank.

Following a tip from his terminated risk assessment supervisor, a young “quant” from M.I.T. (a math and engineering whiz) figures outs that an algorithm invented by other quants, and widely used in the industry to create mortgage backed securities, has led them astray about the future. Flawed technical understanding of the “animal spirits” that drive financial markets, plus excess leverage means there is no way the bank could meet its obligations.

Shown by the 28-year-old rocket scientist his bank was about to go bust — on his watch — the CEO knows that to save the firm he has to coax his traders to do wrong: trick their clients into buying crap. He convinces their dog-loving boss (Kevin Spacey) to offer his traders “a bone.” They each get a $1.5 million dollar bonus if they can sell 93 per cent of the bad securities to unsuspecting clients, and another $1.5 million if the entire floor reaches the 93 per cent sales point.

Once the traders (who are normally summoned to trading floor meetings by a whistle from Spacey or his assistant) get the job done, they are terminated. Since no one would ever deal with those traders again they no longer had anything to offer the firm. The female head of risk assessment (Demi Moore), who had been issuing cautions that went unheeded, gets selected to be the sacrificial head offered up to the board, and the shareholders.

The perversion of reality offered up by the CEO in the film is that money is just pieces of paper with pictures on it. Useful, because it keeps people from going to war just to eat, but not significant, really. The same CEO doubts whether people really want equality, they need people like us he says with lots of money to spend on cars and houses, it makes them happy, he adds.

Well which is it? Does money matter or not? Sociologists offer a stock answer. The absence of money makes people really unhappy; extra dollars to the already-well-off for “positional goods” do not produce equivalent happiness. For those who need their nose rubbed into it, to get something is seriously amiss on Wall Street, the Spacey character, who sacrifices his traders on orders from his boss, only really gets upset because his dog is dying.

Duncan Cameron is’s president. He writes a weekly column on politics and current affairs.

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