It was a scene begging to be turned into a Christopher Guest script (remember, "Best in Show" and "A Mighty Wind?"): A film crew sets up last week and prepares for a shoot around the Foley Square area of lower Manhattan.
Tents are pitched, placards denouncing capitalism are hung, even a free kitchen and library are set up. It's a bit of recent history repeating itself: a faux Occupy Wall Street, this time for inclusion in an upcoming episode of Law and Order SVU.
It was life imitating art, that is, until life intruded with a re-occupation of the phony space by the genuine forces of Occupy. And they weren’t too happy about the exploitation. New placards popped up: "We are a political movement not a TV show" and "#OWS is not for sale." The point was made, loudly, Occupy had not yet been swept out by some historical tidal wave.
Being a film guy, I'm familiar with the problems retooling reality as drama, especially as it pertains to Hollywood drama, where formulaic templates are set in stone. Take Oliver Stone's "Money Never Sleeps," the sequel to "Wall Street."
Now, a bit of a disclaimer: Oliver Stone was my classmate at NYU. And beyond that, my company produced two documentaries on Stone's life and work. I knew in the original film, Oliver based the Hal Holbrook character — the "honest broker" — on his father, Louis Stone. Holbrook represented the good old days of Wall Street, when companies were capitalized by investment houses and before Michael Millken brought his own venal brand of greed to fruition.
The real show stealer, however, was evil incarnate Gordon Gekko, who spouted little homilies that would forever make it into the general lexicon of oft-used quips like "need a friend, get a dog." When released back in 1987, "Wall Street" provided a compelling commentary into what happens when you light a match to a financial tinderbox bearing the labels, greed and ambition.
Then came the sequel…. I don't know what happened after more than two decades of separation. I'm sure there was pressure on Oliver to make something equal to the original, no doubt. Perhaps there was a feeling that spinning a story around an iconic figure named Gekko would bring in an audience bombarded with daily stories of uber-scandals.
But "Money Never Sleeps" fell way short of the mark. Dry and predictable at best; the film felt far removed from the real drama taking place over at Lehman or Bear Stearns. It offered no insights or revelations into how deeply flawed groupthink led to the financial demise. Then again, Oliver would be the first to say that he's not a documentarian: as a dramatist, he's driven by story, not events. But the public didn't get it either. "Money Never Sleeps" was quickly put to bed. No awards, kudos and a disappointing box office.
So, when I read a news article about pre-production for a feature film, "Margin Call," purporting to capture the day-by-day drama of a Wall Street investment firm going belly up my response was of the "why bother" variety.
Then I actually saw the film. Within a few minutes of the opening I knew this was going to be a different experience. It was a documentary of a sort; but with real tension, action and, needless to say, great performances. Any great movie moves along the story, not with dialogue, but with action — what you see — and in this case it was numbers on a screen, pained looks on faces of young execs, and, most of all, the angst of those caught in the middle — primarily the character, Sam Rogers, played by Kevin Spacey.
Watching the arc — the way the characters changed as events went from bad to worse — provided insights into what management at Lehman brothers must have felt as they realized that their titanic was about to hit the iceberg — and there's nothing they could do about it. Played off against Jeremy Irons, as the Fuld-like CEO of the sinking ship, the movie provided a rich mix for what I'd venture to say is the best film about the crisis to date (perhaps with the exception of "Inside Job" if you want to include documentaries). Conversations I had with some acquaintances in senior positions at investment houses confirmed that the film, in their experience, was spot on.
"Margin Call" pushed all the right buttons. If there were two scenes that seem to highlight all that ails Wall Street, I'd point to the one where Stanley Tucci — Eric Dale — the laid off company exec, pines away for the days when as a trained engineer he built useful things like bridges that people could actually use, instead of constructing financial algorithms that contributed nothing of social utility. His performance spoke volumes about what Wall Street has evolved into.
Then there was the poignant scene at the end, where Spacey breaks down in front of his ex-wife's home. He's taken his beloved dog there for burial in her front yard. Divorced, the animal was the only thing he had in his life besides money; certainly the only thing he could actually lavish his love on. Sure it was corny, saccharine and sentimental, but it underscored how a necessary variable — humanity — has turned up missing from the current Wall Street equation.
Joel Sucher, a filmmaker with Pacific Street Films in Hastings-on-Hudson, N.Y. is working on "Foreclosure Diaries," a documentary about the financial crisis.