Jul 31st 2013

Margin Call and Moneyball: Films about money?

by Mary L. Tabor

Mary L. Tabor worked most of her life so that one day she would be able to write full-time. She quit her corporate job when she was 50, put on a backpack and hiking boots to trudge across campus with folks more than half her age. She’s the author of the novel Who by Fire, the memoir (Re)Making Love: a sex after sixty story and the collection of connected short stories The Woman Who Never Cooked. She’s a born and bred liberal who writes lyric essays on the arts for one of the most conservative papers in the country and she hosts a show interviewing authors on Rare Bird Radio. In the picture Mary L.Tabor

Margin Call and Moneyball, two films from 2011 with money central to the narratives, focus the camera lens on love.

These two flicks are flip sides of each other: one with love missing; the other with love surprisingly present. 

Margin Call is a movie not-so-loosely based on Lehman Brother’s choice to start a ball rolling down hill that took the economy – and you and me – with it. You might see the film for the cast alone: Kevin Spacey, Stanley Tucci, Jeremy Irons, Paul Bettany, Simon Baker, Demi Moore and newcomer-to-me Zachary Quinto, who gives a startling, quiet performance.

Eric Dale, played with stunning restraint by Stanley Tucci, begins the downhill spiral with his risk-strategy research on his company’s portfolio before he is canned. On his way out the door with his 19 years at the firm in one banker’s box, all that he’s allowed to take, Eric hands Zachary Quinto’s character Peter Sullivan a flash drive with the analysis he’s been working on and says, “Be careful.”

With that phrase as the elevator doors close, this movie gets rolling. 

The movie is all about the money, some about the ethical questions that carry the conflict, and finally about the spiral that digs a hole in the economy that just keeps digging.

The film’s coup is its ability to build empathy for the brain trust that figured out how the U.S. economy would spiral out of control and then set the spiral on its downward course. 

The critics did not include the word love in any of their columns about Margin Call.

Love underlies this film in two ways: First, it’s missing and that makes you think. 

A world without love is vacant, soulless.

Second, to remind the viewer of that key point, the writer and director add a moment of tenderness between Peter (Zachary Quinto) and Kevin Spacey who plays Sam Rogers, Peter’s boss, the next big guy up the corporate ladder after Eric Dale leaves. 

We get to know this hierarchy well by movie’s end: Jeremy Irons flies in like a king in his helicopter-chariot to set the downward spiral on its spin.

Kevin Spacey’s Sam and Eric Dale hold the humanity of the film — to the extent that the humane is given space inside this frame. The moment between Sam and Peter is easy to miss: Watch for the cigarette smoked in the early morning and Peter’s inquiry about Sam’s son. 

Love lies there and merits our attention for its brevity and its recall at film’s end.

The antithesis of Margin Call is Moneyball. 

Moneyball appears to be all about the money and instead is all about love. I saw it before the 2011 World Series began. Its timeliness as the series wound to its end made this flick a must-see that year. It’s timeless struggle makes it a see-again.

Brad Pitt plays Billy Beane, real-life general manager of the Oakland A’s, and gives a performance that won’t let anyone call him “pretty boy” again. Beane hires brainy, Yale-educated Peter Brand, played with unabashed vulnerability by Jonah Hill, who does statistical analyses of players’ strengths and weaknesses with a focus on what they can do, not what they can’t. 

Beane, short on the money needed to compete for talent, with Brands’ help, re-evaluates how baseball managers trade players, set their positions and win based on statistical analyses.

Aaron Sorkin collaborated on the screenplay, based on the book by Michael Lewis. When Sorkin is involved, layered conflict deepens and good writing gets struck. A Few Good Men and Social Network are two of a plethora of examples of his work. 

In Moneyball, the relationship between Beane and Brand drives the film’s screenplay. The penultimate climax occurs when the statistician Brande shows the discouraged Beane a film clip of a player doing what no one thought he could do. The viewer soon sees that the narrative arc is less about money, less about statistical reasoning and more about what can be done against all odds.

Unspoken love lies between Beane and Brand. Beane teaches Brand how to do the hard stuff, including letting a player go and negotiating a trade. Brand through the video he shows Beane expresses his empathy for what Beane has done and who Beane wants to be. It is no small reality that Beane never “made it” as a player and that he forcefully “makes it,” in the best sense of that phrase, as a human being, as an empathic, loving man. 

No need at either of these films’ end to state Freud’s adage: “Love and work are the cornerstones of our humanness.” Both strike that chord.

Margin Call deals with home mortgages in the literal sense: What got the economic spiral on its course. Work and home are struck here too in that when fired that’s where we go. In the figurative sense, the film strikes the chord that work-as-home is a misplaced value. 

Moneyball effectively belies its title by taking us home in the literal and figurative senses. Ultimately, Beane chooses work and love and breaks our hearts with Brad Pitt in full control of the role and the humanity that defines love.

In the novel You Can’t Go Home Again, Thomas Wolfe says, Because you have known madness and despair, and because you will grow desperate again before you come to evening, we who have stormed the ramparts of the furious earth and been hurled back, we who have been maddened by the unknowable and bitter mystery of love … take heart. 

Take heart in these two films. Discover love’s absence and presence in the human struggle called life.

Trailers for both films follow:

Mary L. Tabor is the author of Who by Fire a novel, the memoir (Re)Making Love and The Woman Who Never Cooked: Short Stories. Find out more at http://maryltabor.com



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