Margin Call: At last, a film about Wall Street that does add up

No one has managed to make a convincing movie of the financial crash, says Stephen Foley. Until now, that is...

Michael Moore was, of course, one of the first celebrities to descend on the Occupy Wall Street crowd. The film-maker was last seen, at the close of his movie Capitalism: A Love Story, putting police tape around a Wall Street bank and shouting upwards, to everyone and to no one: "Crimes have been committed in this building." Two years on and this cry has been taken up by the folk camping in Manhattan's Financial District, for whom marching on the offices of Goldman Sachs has become a daily ritual, yet these protesters seem similarly unlikely to land any of their blows on the banking establishment. Their impotence is partly Moore's fault. We have all been poorly served by the film-makers of the financial crisis.

Wall Street's insane ride up to the peak of the bubble in mortgage credit and the dizzying collapse of that world is fodder for a thousand movies, yet Moore was unable to collect together the wriggling tentacles of the story. Oliver Stone couldn't do it either, despite summoning Gordon Gekko from retirement for a sequel to the era-defining Wall Street from 1987. Charles Ferguson won a Best Documentary Oscar for Inside Job, but his dense (in both senses) critique found Hollywood's erogenous zone only by missing the truth by a mile.

It has taken the first-time director JC Chandor and his low-budget, star-stuffed Margin Call to restore my faith that cinema can help us understand what happened when the music stopped in 2008, when Wall Street came tumbling down and the rubble buried much of the rest of the economy. The film has had modest box-office and rave reviews in the US, though it is yet to get a release date in the UK.

"There are three ways to make a living in this business," the bank boss John Tuld (Jeremy Irons) tells his underlings in a line that has appeared on the posters. "Be first, be smarter, or cheat." The shocking thing about Margin Call: no one cheats.

Chandor, whose father worked for Merrill Lynch for nearly 40 years, has made the first credit-crisis movie peopled by the kind of characters you really do find on Wall Street, providing them with a realistic mix of motives and misgivings, and setting the whole thing amid the claustrophobic silence of the modern trading floor. It has distilled the meltdown into a single 24-hour story told through the executives and traders of one bank, modelled on Goldman Sachs, from the moment a young maths whizz calculates that its toxic mortgage holdings could destroy the firm.

Along the way, Margin Call paints the fullest picture of how Wall Street saw itself in the lead-up to the crash – and still does today. Its characters find comfort rather than joy in the riches on offer. In Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps, the bank boss Bretton James (Josh Brolin) has the best line when he is asked how much money is enough, and he replies "more". In Chandor's film, the motive is not "more" so much as it is "not less". There is an undercurrent of melancholy, as many wonder what else they could have done with their brilliant degrees in physics or engineering.

"If you really want to do this with your life you have to believe you're necessary, and you are," the senior trader Will Emerson (Paul Bettany) tells a rookie analyst as they speed through Brooklyn, as the edifice of mortgage finance looks like it is about to crack. "People want to live like this in their cars and big fucking houses they can't even pay for, then you're necessary. The only reason that they all get to continue living like kings is cause we got our fingers on the scales in their favour." As weary head of trading Sam Rogers, Kevin Spacey is most nuanced.

His is the moral dilemma of the film: whether to go along with Tuld's plan to "be first", to dump the toxic holdings before the market turns, knowing that doing so will trigger the market collapse and ruin many clients.

He does go along with it. What would be the point of giving up the money, the imperious Tuld implies. "1637, 1797, 1819, '37, '57, '84, 1901, '07, '29, 1937, 1974, 1987... '92, '97, 2000 and whatever we want to call this. It's all just the same thing over and over. We can't help ourselves. And you and I can't control it, or stop it, or even slow it. Or even ever-so-slightly alter it. We just react."

Michael Moore filmed lots of Wall Street types for Capitalism: A Love Story, including at a specially convened dinner party where he tried to induce former traders to lift the lid on fraud and excess. Clearly he found the reality too nuanced, dull even, because the footage stayed on the cutting-room floor. Nevertheless, tens of thousands who work on Wall Street continue to be casually slandered by film-makers like Moore, and Ferguson, whose documentary painted them as greedy, cocaine-addled risk-junkies. Inside Job quoted one professor saying "most people" on Wall Street would make a bet that put their firm at risk in return for a $2m bonus, and claimed that making money stimulated the same part of the brain as cocaine.

What these earlier cinematic failures have in a common is that they all start from the premise that crimes were committed. Working backwards, they inevitably push the narrative of the crisis into strange shapes, and create contortions where there should be characters. At its most ludicrous, in Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps, the Brolin character is undone by secretly trading shares in a rival firm, something that no investment-bank boss would ever be so stupid as to do.

So tape Wall Street off as a crime scene. Occupy it, if you like. Identify a few clear villains, or even condemn the whole damn lot of them, but don't for a second believe that you can understand the chaos of the last few years by doing so. Margin Call is a much better place to start.

Stephen Foley is Associate Business Editor of 'The Independent', and is based in New York

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