A credit crunch movie that doesn’t hate bankers

IF you had to guess where J.C. Chandor’s sympathies lie, you’d probably go with “anti-banker”. Had I met him without having watched a pre-release DVD of Margin Call, his art-house credit crunch thriller, I’d take one look at his skinny jeans, luxuriant black hair and air of New York cool and think: no way is this guy a friend of Wall Street.

Appearances, of course, can deceive, and it turns out that hip as he looks when we meet in the penthouse of the May Fair hotel, Chandor is far too clever for banker bashing. Margin Call, which stars Kevin Spacey, Jeremy Irons, Stanley Tucci and Demi Moore (not a bad cast for a first-time feature film maker) focuses on 36 hours in an unspecified investment bank just before the proverbial hits the fan in 2008. Filmed in just three weeks in an old Manhattan hedge fund office, the film is a tight, claustrophobic examination of humans in trouble. Chandor wanted to show that the bankers involved in the sale of trillions of dollars of mortgage securities are indeed people with hearts ands souls – never more vulnerable than when they realise it’s all gone horribly wrong.

Predictably, not everyone is happy with that standpoint. “I get criticism from both the left and right,” he says. “The left are particularly angry that the movie isn’t critical enough, that I haven’t hung them out to dry. But I had no interest in doing that.”

So does he sympathise with his characters, which include Jeremy Irons’ Dick Fulds-esque CEO, Paul Bettany’s strip club-frequenting chief trader and Kevin Spacey’s head honcho? “I don’t have sympathy,” says Chandor. “The choices they made are the choices they made. But I’m empathetic. A huge amount of coverage has been given over to caricature – a black and white portrayal, where the bankers are all bad guys. There is certainly a scapegoat element in the US. Hopefully what the film does is show these people in a more complex light.”

One reason Chandor is so refreshingly free of that simplistic fury evident in, say, the Occupy Wall Street and St Paul’s protesters is that his father worked for Merrill Lynch for 35 years. “My personal experience with people in that industry is: do they get paid a lot more than most of us? Absolutely. But if you took a thousand people from that world, on average, most of them are unbelievably hard working and really, really smart. These are people who work harder than I do. Since they were 22 – scratch that, 15 years old – they have worked harder than I have. At the high end, there is a serious issue with the compensation packages, and some of the lavish things people did were silly and stupid and poor taste and ridiculous, but I have never entirely begrudged them.”

So is Wall Street a better place now than it was before September 2008? “I’m not sure it’s about being a better place,” he says, with the pragmatism I now see as his trademark. “I think that to expect these people in the system to change without help from the outside is a fool’s errand. Based on that last speech by Tuld [Jeremy Irons’ CEO], where he says money is just paper, people ask me if I think it’s all hopeless. Absolutely not! But we do need to engage: I do think the banking system needs to realign itself to be promoting development of businesses and ingenuity, to help people make things – a more traditional style of banking, in other words. If you look at the top five investment banks in the five years before the crash and what a percentage of profit came from making money for money’s sake and what percentage came from traditional investment and commercial banking practices, there’s no question that it was entirely out of whack.”

I can’t help but note that Irons’s arch-Englishness lends an extra air of the sinister to his role. Was this intentional? “It wasn’t just because he was English,” says Chandor. “A lot of wonderful actors are English, but also there’s a New York-London financial exchange and a lot of English people in New York, so it made sense. But Irons’ character does not do what he does because he is pure evil, but because he’s a true capitalist: he believes what he says. When someone’s being pure evil, there’s a psychopathic tendency, which he doesn’t have, although people on the left probably think he does.”

The film does not contain any sex, police chases or violence. In fact, says Chandor, the presence of those elements would have driven away his super-star cast, who basically did the film for free because they saw it was subtle, interesting, real (and low-budget). Thanks to their acting but also to the pace, it is utterly gripping without those classic thriller trappings. Boiled down, though, Chandor believes Margin Call is a tragedy. Tragedy visits each character personally, but it is the very ideology of their work that is most tragic. “The tragic flaw of capitalism is that the more money you have, the easier it is to make money. That’s why it has to be regulated.”

With that, he jumps off the plush sofa, shakes my hand, smoothes his hair and heads off to explain why bankers are still people to the next person.

Margin Call opens in the UK on Friday.