Margin Call (Chandor, 2011)

Margin Call presents a fictional version of the origins of the actual 2008 crisis. Absent manslaughter and tales of infidelity, the movie stays geographically and thematically closer to the corporate boardroom than does Arbitrage. [click here to see visual essay on films related to Margin Call]

The film opens during a cyclical downsizing in which a grim-faced human resource staff invades the office of an unnamed, fictional investment bank. Eighty percent of its workforce is fired, while the remaining twenty percent watch on. While being escorted out of the building by security, Eric Dale (Stanley Tucci), Chief of Risk Management, gives a flash drive to Peter Sullivan (Zachary Quinto), a young co-worker whom he was mentoring, and tells him to be careful. Soon after, Peter discovers that the drive contains data showing how the firm’s actions will have a disastrous domino effect on the larger economy, and will leave the firm “holding the biggest bag of odorous excrement ever assembled in the history of capitalism,” as the CEO of the company later says.

The remainder of the film examines how the executive staff will deal with the crisis in order to ensure their survival. In the process, the film plays out a deterministic world-view of capitalism in which its elite core is seduced into “golden handcuffs’ (sky-high salaries) at the beginning of their careers and protected at the end of their careers with “golden parachutes” (sky-high exit bonuses). The protocol guarantees a tribalistic survival of the system by ensuring that team players never get hurt. On the road from handcuffs to parachute, the characters are confronted with a gauntlet of workaday realities such as social Darwinism, the Hobson choice, the brain drain, conspicuous consumption, and the Faustian bargain.

Exit stage right: With two “Banker Boxes” filled with 19 years of office knickknacks, Eric Dale (Stanley Tucci) is denied access to the company server, email and cell service even before he has exited the building, to which he also no longer has access. In spite of HR’s suggestion, Dale, takes the dismissal personally and smashes his cell phone.

Eric Dale is ushered into a room where two HR officers tell him it’s nothing personal and then present him with a Hobson’s choice: he has 24 hours to accept the severance package they are offering him or it will be revoked. The Hobson choice—a choice with only one palatable option—will reappear at several points in the story, underscoring the view that financial markets comprise a closed, deterministic system where choice is illusory.

To bolster morale on the floor after the mass exodus, Sam Rogers (Kevin Spacey), the sales manager, coaxes applause from the surviving 20%. He proclaims that although the people that were let go were “good people...good at their jobs,” the remaining employees are better, and as surviving staff they now have a greater opportunity for success because the loss of their colleagues means less competition. Scenes like this repeat themselves and indicate that Social Darwinism is clearly one of the film’s major themes.

Buried in Sam’s pep talk is a veiled threat and tacit knowledge that anyone of the remaining staff could be the next to go.
By the end of the film the threat is unveiled when nearly all of them are in fact let go.
Described as “the tip of the sword of capitalism” by screenwriter/director Chandor, Will Emerson [left], the lead trader, is full of blustery machismo talk. The men talk a lot about about compensation, including [framed by the dancer's legs] Seth’s speculation to Peter about how much a stripper earns.

Upon discovering the significance of the flash drive’s data and unable to contact the persona non grata Eric, Peter calls coworkers Seth Bregman (Penn Badgley) and Will Emerson (Paul Bettany) who are out drinking with the boys. Like all of the movies discussed here, Margin Call is decidedly white male-centric and features only one major female character. If Social Darwinism is a major theme, the Darwinian survival of the fittest is here measured by the age and income of the players. We learn that Seth is 23 years old and made nearly a quarter of a million dollars in the previous year; Will, in his thirties, made $2.5 million. Embracing a the-more-you-make-the-more-you-spend philosophy, Will complains/brags about how the price of living large weighs heavily on his disposable income and how the money is never enough to support sending money home to the folks, money for prostitutes, and the cost of owning an Aston Martin. The three men, loyal to Sam Rogers, are offended by the fact that he makes less money than the younger (age 43) Jared Cohen (Simon Baker). We also learn that the CEO, whose helicopter has yet to land on the building’s helipad, made $86 million in salary and bonuses the previous year.

[Top] Simon Baker as Jared Cohen with Sam, and Jeremy Irons as CEO John Tuld, a hybrid of Dick Fuld, [bottom left] the last CEO of the defunct Lehman Brothers and John Thain, the final CEO of Merrill Lynch before it merged with Bank of America. The director’s father enjoyed a long career with ‘Mother Merrill’ before retiring in 2007, and became the model for the Kevin Spacey character.

The money and the excitement of how it is earned is these men’s raison d’être and it is also what alienates them from the rest of humanity. “Look at these people,” says Peter watching passersby go about their business on a city street, “Wandering around with absolutely no idea what’s about to happen.” Late in the film Will makes an obligatory speech to Seth about the impact the work they do has on the economy. The speech, more of a rant, was ignited by Seth’s expression of sympathy for how “real people” will be affected by the impending crisis and has a similar logic to the “you can’t handle the truth” tirade made by the Jack Nicholson character in A Few Good Men (Reiner, 1992). Here Will says:

“People want to live like this, in their cars and the 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 because we’ve got our fingers on the scales in their favor. I take my hand off, then the whole world gets really fucking fair really fucking quickly, and nobody actually wants that. They say they do, but they don’t. They want what we have to give them, but they also want to play innocent and pretend they have no idea where it came from and that’s more hypocrisy than I’m willing to swallow. So fuck normal people.”

Still unable to find Eric, Peter becomes the focal point at meetings with superiors who don’t know him and question him about his background. He tells them that he holds a doctorate in engineering with a specialty in propulsion from MIT. He says his “thesis was a study in the ways that friction ratios affect steering outcomes in aeronautical use under reduced gravity loads.” The language of engineering must sound as foreign and awkward to the executives at this meeting, as the language of finance—quants, derivatives, credit default swaps, tranches—sounds to the average film viewer. “So you’re a rocket scientist,” Jared simplifies. The terms rocket scientist and Chief of Risk Management are shorthand terms that suggest much while explaining very little. When he’s asked how he came to work at the firm, Peter explains more simply,

“It’s all just numbers really. Just changing what you’re adding up. And to speak freely, the money here is considerably more attractive.”

The brain drain, the siphoning of “human capital” away from innate desires, natural abilities, intellectual pursuits or social interests, is another major theme of Margin Call. Much later in the film when Eric Dale is finally located, he and Will have a conversation on the steps of Eric’s Brooklyn home. Here we learn that like Peter, Eric was an engineer. He recounts in great detail and with pride his experience of building a bridge in Ohio in 1986, and how that bridge has had a positive and long-term effect on people’s lives. In one of the concluding scenes, CEO Tuld reminds Sam that he is fortunate because he could have been digging ditches all these years instead of working for the firm, to which Sam replies, “At least there’d be some holes in the ground to show for it.” There is a sense that the work the firm performs is so abstract that it holds little personal value or satisfaction beyond the acquisition of wealth: wealth for wealth’s sake.

During a very tense 4 A.M. meeting with the executives, senior partners and the recently arrived John Tuld, a decision is made to unload billions of dollars of toxic mortgage-backed securities that the company holds. Sam argues that it’s wrong to sell something that has no value thereby killing the market and ending any trust that their clients might have in the company. Just as Robert Miller in Arbitrage corrected his daughter, telling her that he did not commit fraud but made a bad bet, Tuld makes a semantic correction: they are not selling junk to unsuspecting clients, they “are selling to willing buyers at the current fair market price, so that we may survive.” Tuld reminds Sam and the others that his motto has been, “Be first, be smarter, or cheat.” He insists he doesn’t cheat, but fails to see how this looks like cheating. He acknowledges that there are a lot of smart people in the room but knows that he’s in a game of musical chairs and the only way out of their dilemma is to be first. When the music stops he wants to make sure the firm has a place to sit at the table.

The illusion of choice, or a Hobson’s choice, is another primary theme in Margin Call. Acknowledging Sam’s reluctance to unload the company’s junk assets, Tuld asks, “If I made you, how would you do this?” Tuld can’t make Sam do anything, yet Sam eventually does exactly what Tuld requests. Tuld desperately needs Sam to motivate the sales force to sell the junk assets as fast as possible before the buyers realize that the invisible hand of the market has, to reference another children’s party game, tossed them a hot potato. After balking, Sam buckles and gives his sales force another pep talk accompanied by still another Hobson’s choice. He tells them that what they are about to do will effectively end their careers but then he gives them individual and group sales goals that could reward them with nearly $3 million dollars each for their day’s labor. In other words, they can quit or be fired and get nothing, or they can work, then quit or be fired, and possibly walk away with a fat paycheck.

When Eric was terminated he had to “choose’ between accepting the severance package or immediately losing his income and health care. When the firm realizes that Eric has information that could hurt them if it becomes public too soon, Eric can choose between being imprisoned in the office for a short time and keeping his severance package while getting paid, according to his calculation, $176,471 an hour, or refusing and possibly getting nothing. It’s in this waiting room where we also find the only major female character, Sarah Robertson (Demi Moore), whom Tuld has selected over her male counterpart, Jared Cohen, to serve as the corporate scapegoat. She waits with Eric not knowing what her severance package will be.

Near the end of the “fire sale,” as the traders are unloading the toxic assets, the human resources staff returns to eliminate more positions. Sam storms out of his office and tells Tuld that he wants out. Trying to allay Sam’s self-doubt about what he’s just done, Tuld presents a brief history of capitalism saying, “It’s just money,” and then rattles off a list of about a dozen years as if they were the names of his children, which in a sense they are. The dates represent a timeline of economic crises starting with 1637 and ending in the present day. “It’s all just the same thing, over and over. We can’t help ourselves,” says Tuld, affirming his conviction that capitalism is manifest destiny: a closed, deterministic system. Tuld tells Sam that he needs to have him stay on for another two years. Sam entered the room determined to quit but leaves the room choosing to stay because, as he says, “I need the money.”

No good deed goes unpunished: The two people who warned their higher ups about the possibility of a crisis go to the top of the shit list. Telling Sarah (Demi Moore) “I need a head to feed to the traders on the floor,” Tuld sentences her to the waiting room with Eric. Reading between the spoken and unspoken lines of Sarah and Eric’s conversation, Sarah laments and resents that she chose to work at the firm over having a family, whereas the men at the firm could have both if they so chose.
It’s déjà vu all over again: Trying to allay Sam’s guilt and keep him in the fold, Tuld proffers another of the films obligatory speeches: “You and I can’t control it [the capitalist economy], or stop it, or even slow it, or even ever so slightly alter it. We just react. " ... ... "And we make a lot of money if we get it right, and we get left by the side of the road if we get it wrong. And there’s always been and there always will be the same percentage of winners and losers, happy fucks and sad sacks, fat cats and starving dogs in this world.”

When Sam is first introduced at the beginning of the film, he’s crying; not because 80% of his staff was just fired but because his dog is dying and in spite of spending $1000 a day, there’s nothing he can do to save her life. In the very last sequence Sam is digging a hole in the lawn on a large property in front of the stately home where he no longer lives. His ex-wife (Mary McDonnell), a woman he no longer has a meaningful relationship with, watches. He buries his dog in a place that represents all that he has gained and then lost. Sam has made his Faustian deal. He’s gained the world and lost his soul, here ironically symbolized by the burial of his beloved dog.

Arbitrage and Margin Call are critical of certain business practices and personal behavior while being careful not to condemn or excuse the system they examine. Conflicts and contradictions drive the narrative but leave vague or at least up to viewer interpretation the links between practices detrimental to the public interest, criminal malfeasance, corporate policy, and legislative inaction. The films’ writers/directors are sons of parents that have or had careers in New York’s financial district; both movies reflect a familiarity with that world which seems as authentic as the questions and doubts raised in the plots. In the next film I discuss, Wolf of Wall Street (Scorsese, 2013), a son of working-class parents who were employed in the garment district a few miles north of Wall Street created a vision of the financial markets that is vastly different than the previous two films in its source, tone, style and purpose.

Yes Virginia, god spelled backwards is you know who. Sam gains the world but loses his dog.
Ignored by the mighty ship of state: Director Chandor, who has identified himself as a capitalist in numerous interviews, explores doubts and contradictions, if in a more allegorical and poetic fashion, in his second film, All is Lost (2013), where the main character (Robert Redford) is marooned at sea after a stray commercial shipping container pokes a fatal hole in his yacht as he sleeps. Later in the film, an enormous Maersk shipping vessel with thousands of such containers passes dangerously close to his raft, dwarfing the unseen castaway, and failing to rescue him. The man tries hanging on to as many of his possessions as possible for as long as possible, but piece-by-piece he is forced to part with them in order to survive.

The Wolf of Wall Street (Scorsese, 2013)

Lions, bulls and bears, oh my!—These three images are featured in the opening sequence of the film during which a TV commercial for Belfort’s company, Stratton Oakmont, is seen. The advert appears to reference a 1992 commercial for the Dreyfus Corporation in which a lion and a bull face off in front of Federal Hall on Wall Street. The three beasts may also reference a modern iteration of Dante’s lion, leopard, and she-wolf, generally interpreted as the sins of pride, greed, and lust.

The story told in Martin Scorsese’s The Wolf of Wall Street, takes place before the 2008 Crisis. The script is based on a work of non-fiction, a memoir chronicling the life of Jordan Belfort, a stockbroker who ended his multi-million dollar career with a twenty-two month stay in a federal prison. The Wolf of Wall Street, The Aviator (2004), Goodfellas (1990), and Raging Bull (1980), to mention just a few of Scorsese’s movies based on the lives of actual people, are not neatly categorized as biopics. The filmmaker’s freewheeling “anything goes’ shooting and editing style, the counterintuitive narrative development of a strong spiritual subtext in films that feature characters who gleefully engage in violence and profanity, and the recurring theme of how certain socially constructed ideas of masculinity lead to gender polarization and social isolation, override the importance of other narrative details that usually make up a standard biographical sketch. For this reason, although Scorsese’s character-driven films have a narrative arc, their plot is often subservient to the construction and execution of the individual scenes that explore character behavior as a portal into the interior life. Also for this reason, the biographical accuracy of the plot is not of primary importance. The spirit not the letter of the law is what’s sought. [click here to see visual essay on films related to The Wolf of Wall Street]

The very unreliable narrator: In the closing sequence from The Wolf of Wall Street, the real Jordan Belfort [top left] introduces a construction of himself as interpreted by Leonardo DiCaprio [top right].
Danny Porush [bottom right] threatened to sue the producers of Wolf if they didn’t change his name, and so Jonah Hill [bottom left] plays Danny in the guise of Donny Azoff.  After seeing the trailer of the movie, Porush said in Mother Jones magazine that “the book…is a distant relative of the truth, and the film is a distant relative of the book.” But Porush went on to say, “Hey it’s Hollywood. I’m not a communist; I know they want to make a movie that sells.” For an assessment of Wolf’s accuracy to actual events, see these Hollywood vs. History and Slate articles.

In The Wolf of Wall Street, the opening montage of self-described “degenerate” debauchery, which includes “dwarf-throwing” and profligate indulgences, is a warning to the audience that every effort will be made to offend us. We are ushered through a hedonistic false paradise where Belfort and his merry band of anti-heroes reject the constraints of conventional morality in favor of self-destructive nihilism. Scorsese charts the rise and fall of the stockbrokers with the same visceral energy and dark humor that he applied to the rise and fall of the mobsters in Goodfellas and Casino (1995).

The film has many images of the characters’ outlandishly excited facial expressions and bodily gestures. These encourage an association with the grotesque imagery found in the paintings of Bosch, Brueghel and other artists who have created orgiastic visions of sin and hell, often taking inspiration from Dante’s Inferno. In addition to considering the film’s representation of actual events, if Wolf is taken allegorically, the Belfort character can be seen as metaphorically escorting the viewer through the vestibule of hell on a tour of the seven deadly sins but without the guidance of a Virgil or Beatrice or the promise of salvation.

Detail from Christ Carrying the Cross (c. 1515) by Bosch. Members of the crowd taunt one of the thieves that will be crucified along with Christ. Wolf’s opening sequence of debauchery is the cinematic equivalent of Dante’s “abandon all hope” sign at the gates of hell.
Mark Hanna makes a sale on the trading floor. Jordan learns the ropes.

In an early sequence we find Jordan (Leonardo DiCaprio) newly arrived on Wall Street having lunch at an upscale restaurant with top stockbroker Mark Hanna (Matthew McConaughey). As yet uncorrupted, Jordan drinks water while Hanna has martinis and snorts coke with impunity. Hanna lays out his cynical view of Wall Street: Nobody knows if the stock market is going up or down so “fuck the clients” and “move the money from your client’s pocket into your pocket.” Capitalism is defined as a zero sum game by Hanna who has presented the receptive Jordan with a blueprint for success that depends on fraud and greed and springs from malice aforethought.

Shortly after obtaining his brokers license, Jordan loses his job in the wake of the crash of 1987. He finds another job selling penny stocks at the “Investor’s Center,” a ramshackle firm in Long Island. Leading by example, Jordan quickly impresses his colleagues with his natural ability to pitch a sow’s ear as if it were a silk purse. He sells worthless stock at a premium price to people who really can’t afford it: “Selling garbage to garbage men,” as he puts it. “The other guy’s looked at me as if I just discovered fire,” says Belfort, who is on his way to becoming a charismatic idol, a false god, revered and worshiped by loyal employees whose primary goal is to accumulate as much wealth as possible, regardless of the moral cost.

In the next sequence, Donnie Azoff (Jonah Hill) approaches Jordan for the first time and they begin an alliance that will eventually lead to each other’s downfall. Even though Jordan has the finely tailored suit, makes $70,000 a month and drives the flashy sports car, it’s Donnie, employed at a children’s furniture store and wearing a ridiculous multi-colored patchwork shirt, who maintains the position of power throughout the sequence.

Hanna may have introduced Jordan to the role that drugs can play in fueling his success, but it’s Donnie who puts the crack pipe in Jordan’s mouth. The film’s characters’ open embrace of a subprime morality is frequently expressed through an association with the grotesque imagery and caricature found in a host of art forms, for example the gargoyle from the Paisley Abbey in Scotland.

Synthesizing his experience at the establishment firm of L. F. Rothschild on Wall Street with the working class Investor’s Center, Jordan rents an abandoned gas station and starts a business with the lofty sounding name of Stratton Oakmont. Jordan refers to his new easily-corrupted, dope-dealing employees as a “crew,” and they are hired and treated as a crew is in a heist movie. The startup company eventually moves into a new office space located in the aptly named Village of Lake Success. After the publication of a negative article about Jordan and his company in Forbes magazine, droves of young man, disciples that come to be known as “Strattonites,” flock to his office begging for a chance to work for him.

Originally upset by the Forbes article, Jordan comes to realize that, as Teresa insisted, “There’s no such thing as bad publicity.” Droves of young men compete to join the ranks of Stratton Oakmont.
Forbes republished the 1991 article about Belfort after the release of Wolf of Wall Street saying that Scorsese and DiCaprio were less interested “in the true facts of Belfort’s life and actual details of his securities crimes than in showing off more and more lewd behavior.” Ben Younger’s excellent family melodrama Boiler Room (2000) with Giovanni Ribisi, offers another version of the Belfort story but from the point of view of the young Strattonites, although, no doubt for legal reasons, there is not a single mention of Belfort or Stratton Oakmont in the movie or in the accompanying DVD commentary.

The now successful firm employs hundreds of traders and brokers. Celebrating end-of-month gross sales totaling over $28 million, Jordan orchestrates a “weekly act of debauchery” that includes the performance of an underwear-clad marching band, tuxedoed waiters serving champagne, dozens of strippers, and a pantomime of orgiastic behavior by the employees who are showered by confetti that falls impossibly from ceiling panels while florescent tubes flicker like strobe lights. The conservative underwear of the marching band is contrasted with the pasties, teddies and g-strings worn by the strippers as the soundtrack transitions from John Phillip Sousa’s Stars and Stripes Forever to Howlin’ Wolf’s Smokestack Lightning. The contradiction between a surrealistic idealization of American success (Sousa/marching band) and its harsher reality (strippers/Howlin’ Wolf) collide graphically and aurally.

The self-satisfied Jordan: He first surrendered to intemperance and then unleashed it into his newly created empire. He lords over the celebratory ‘bull worshipers’ like Aaron at the Adoration of the Golden Calf.
Moral parables abound, as do allusions to religious imagery from other eras throughout. Aaron and the Israelites worship a graven image in The Worship of the Egyptian Bull God, Apis (c. 1500) by Filippino Lippi. Meanwhile on Mount Sinai God commands Aaron’s younger brother Moses that “thou shalt not.” The Adoration of the Golden Calf (c. 1633) by Nicolas Poussin.

Along with his white Ferrari, “humongous estate,” “two perfect kids,” yachts and many other luxurious belongings that we see during the opening montage, Naomi (Margot Robbie), Jordan’s second wife, is presented as another of Jordan’s prized possessions. As she’s being introduced, the former model and Miller Lite girl “strikes a pose” and is the first to break the fourth wall when she provocatively looks into the camera, either as if admiring her own reflection in a mirror or acknowledging the presence of the audience with a flirtatious gaze. The viewers are voyeurs not simply to the characters’ sexual exploits but as peeping toms peering into a world of pornographic wealth that can only be experienced vicariously through passive watching, like viewing an episode of the old Robin Leach TV series Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous: “champagne wishes and caviar dreams.”

Who’s looking at whom? Naomi (Margot Robbie) looks at us looking at her. Does the presentation of Jordan’s possessions in the opening montage implicate the viewer in an act of envy? Only the viewer can say.

Jordan is the next to break the fourth wall with his soliloquy about his use of recreational drugs during which his African American maid and chauffer open and close doors for him and presumably are there to clean up the glass goblet of orange juice that he tosses to the ground where it shatters. Naomi, the Strattonites, the maid and the chauffer are portrayed as objectified beings that have a specific and limited purpose.

The Master-Servant Rule is a legal term for the employer-employee association that is rooted in feudalism and is still in use today. It can be applied to Jordan’s relationship with his household servants as well as his employees at Stratton Oakmont. According to Black’s online Law Dictionary, a servant (employee) “remains entirely under the control and direction of [his/her master].”   
The trade off is that the Master Servant Rule also states that employers (masters) are responsible and accountable for the negligent actions of their employees regardless of the employers’ awareness of their actions. Apparently the rule was not applied to any of the senior executives of financial institutions responsible for the 2008 Crisis. Nor, except for one case, was any law applied to the low or middle level players who evaded prosecution in spite of widespread proof of systemic fraud.

At his office, Jordan begins to explain what an IPO is to the viewer when he stops himself and smugly declares to us,

“Look, I know you’re not following what I’m saying anyway, right? That’s okay. That doesn’t matter. The real question is this: was all this legal? Absolutely fucking not.”

Like the voice-over narration, the breaking of the fourth wall via Jordon’s acknowledgment of the camera/audience becomes a confessional in which with a nod and a wink he can strip away the veil of hypocrisy and rationalizations and explain the nature and purpose of his legal and moral transgressions.

Hanna, Donnie and Naomi represent a fool’s paradise of malice, gluttony and lust. Jordan is tearing through the seven deadly sins on a hedonistic rampage for pleasure and material gratification, the cost of which is deferred, but inevitable spiritual anguish, another recurring theme in Scorsese’s work.

Wolf of Wall Street as a compendium of cardinal vices:
  • Gluttony [top]—Jordan loads up on Quaaludes, food and drink before an important business meeting. To the right, a detail from Pieter Bruegel the Elder’s Seven Vices—Gluttony (1558).
  • Sloth [middle]—detail from Parable of the Wheat and the Tares (1624) by Abraham Bloemaert. The lazy peasants sleep while the devil, in the background, sows weeds among the wheat. To the right, the depleted revelers sleep as Jordan, the first to rise, stumbles through the debris left in the wake of his Las Vegas bachelor party.
  • Wrath [bottom]—The honeymoon is over. Spousal rape and other acts of violence near the end of the film, signal the end of marriage number two. To the right, a detail from Anger (c. 1642) byJacques de l’ Ange, one of a series of seven painting depicting the Seven Deadly Sins.

By the end of the movie Jordan has lost his family, is estranged from his colleagues, most of whom he’s betrayed, and sent to prison. Upon his release he works as a motivational speaker engaging his novice audience in a basic “sell me this pen” exercise.

After much drama, Jordan’s end is rife with loneliness and despair. It’s like the end suffered by other Scorsese anti-heroes. Middleweight champion Jake LaMotta in Raging Bull ends up as an entertainer at a cheap nightclub; billionaire Howard Hughes in The Aviator is trapped in a bathroom with his own circular obsessive thoughts; Henry Hill in Goodfellas lives the life of a “nobody” after enrolling in the Witness Protection Program.

As everything unravels near the end of Goodfellas, you can hear one of the wise guys being led out by the police say something like: Why don’t you go to Wall Street and catch some real criminals? As everything unravels by the end of Wolf of Wall Street, there is little doubt left about how success in the financial market can be gamed. At the end of Casino, the De Niro character laments his lost “paradise on earth”: the casinos are demolished and the mob is evicted by corporate America that uses junk bonds to rebuild Vegas in the image of a Disney-type theme park. The public is now fleeced at the gambling tables with the imprimatur of respectability that entertainment divorced from blatant, violent, criminality provides. Jordan Belfort, Bernie Madoff, Michael Milken, Ivan Boesky and Raj Rajaratnam are part of a criminal class of white collar free lancers who get caught and are tried and imprisoned. In contrast, the established, “too big to fail” financial institutions, pillars of U.S. capital supported by legislators and regulators, loot, pillage and plunder, rarely challenged by the proverbial long arm of the law.

Capitalism’s invisible army: Richard Dreyfus as Bernie Madoff [left] is in a rage, not because his ponzi scheme has been found out, but because his scheme is not recognized as operating within the confines of a much larger ponzi scheme that went unpunished. In The Good Shepherd (2006, De Niro) [right] Matt Damon plays one of the founding fathers of the CIA. As U.S. business interests are endangered in circa 1960 Cuba, the Damon character enlists the help of the mob connected Pesci character by threatening him with deportation if he does not comply. ... ... It’s no wonder that some like to refer to the CIA as Capitalism’s Invisible Army. In a chilling bit of dialogue, after the Pesci character lists the life-affirming values of immigrants and African-Americans, although not using life-affirming language, he asks, “what about you people?” meaning WASPs. “What do you have?” To which the Damon character answers, “The United States of America, the rest of you are just visiting.”