01/04/2012 04:16 pm ET Updated Mar 05, 2012

We Go to the Year-End Movies

What's the new year for if not to catch up on all those movies you were too busy, or too cheap, to see earlier? Here's my very short report. The Descendants. If this is a comedy, just shoot me immediately. A Dangerous Method. Carl Jung as a fashion plate, Sigmund Freud with a cigar fixation, and Keira Knightley as a lunatic with one very strange accent. But enough of the fun and games, which neither of these films has an ounce of, unless you count the spanking scene in the Jung movie. In that cosmic way these things sometimes occur, I also finally caught Margin Call, about a Wall Street firm with a very big problem, and, immediately after, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, John le Carré's complex unraveling of a Soviet-era plot by a man as dour as as a wintry London sky. While there's no laughs here, both of these movies reflect a kind of gray watery light upon each other, providing a coda to the year rapidly slipping past.

What is that coda? It involves the limits of human intelligence in a world of elusive complexity and the power of institutions to shape worldviews. Strangely enough, both movies open with folks getting fired and end with the ambiguous (and very temporary) triumph of a few individuals over chaos and disaster -- followed by more firings. Both involve figures that must use their considerable intellects to solve complex puzzles. Both are claustrophobic and involve protagonists who have been dumped by their wives. The firm at the heart of Margin Call manages to unload a massive position of rotting mortgage-backed securities on its customers, thus avoiding blowing a hole in its capital and precipitating a Lehman Brothers-like run. This is morally ambiguous, if expedient; and it raises all kinds of questions about the future of the firm. In Tinker Tailor, George Smiley, after getting a new pair of glasses, successfully ferrets out a Soviet mole near the top of Britain M15. Smiley is remorselessly logical in peeling this particular onion and revealing the canker within; but having exposed it, he also reveals the weakness of Britain and the decay of M15. Tinker Tailor also raises all the old questions that were part and parcel of the Cold War and, let's face it, the financial crisis: Who exactly do you trust? What is really going on? What are the moral responsibilities of individuals to themselves, to their institution or firm, to the wider world and nation? Why are all these people so miserable?

Both keep that outside world at a distance, as if compared to the needs of firm, agency or self, the fate of others has a sort of unreality. Members of the firm in Margin Call view regular folks on the street (from big buildings looking down, from inside nice cars) as clueless, poorly paid and ignorant -- echoing a line of Tim Geithner's that appears in Too Big to Fail about innocent souls not realizing they're about to plunge into an abyss. The sentiment feels accurate enough, but there's artificiality to the crisis that threatens, we are told, not only the firm but the markets. The crisis befalls the firm with the rapidity of a rogue-trading position and the scale of a seismic Lehman-type systemic disaster. It's hard to realistically reconcile the two into one megacrisis: The former would hurt, perhaps kill, the firm, but not the larger world; the latter would not simply surface overnight because of a calculative error involving value at risk. Rather, it would involve a breakdown in the real world that would engulf the firm over some time. Moreover, selling out a position that would threaten the markets could never be done in a day. These admittedly are quibbles.

Despite that, Margin Call does a far better job than most other overheated dramas of Wall Street in capturing what it's like inside an institution in crisis: the late hours, the sudden meetings, the thick tension, the casual bureaucratic brutality. The movie makes several desultory attempts to pin blame, but none get much purchase. The head of risk management, played by Demi Moore, who mostly sits there looking pained (she's taking the fall), suggests she warned the firm's senior executives, including the CEO, played by Jeremy Irons, who in turn adopts a kind of devil-may-care determinism: Stuff happens in markets, yesterday, today, tomorrow. Let's deal with it. No one, however, ever points the finger at the head trader, played by Kevin Spacey, who is tortured in a variety of ways and must hold his nose and unload the mortgage-backed positions. After all, the minions of Spacey's character bought all this bad stuff and didn't anticipate what was coming. But that doesn't seem to bother him or anyone else. What bothers him is that he feels as if he's screwing his customers and his dog is dying. His empathy for the dog bails him out as actually human.

At least with Tinker Tailor the drama unfolds against a historical moral struggle between good and bad, democracy and communism, Britain and the Soviet Union. We know that -- at least we should -- although the film never really dwells on it. It is disconcerting to re-enter this now-lost age after so many years. You realize how long it has been since the Cold War ended; and you wonder how a younger person, who would only know the period from books, copes with a story that involves a flurry of names and a rapid narration of complex events. Smiley's shadowy Soviet antagonist Karla comes across as a fellow games player of surpassing skill; except for a brutal killing during an interrogation (balanced by a killing from the other side a bit later) there's really no attempt to separate good guys from bad. Someone who comes to this story without context would divide the cast up between effective players (Smiley, Karla) and feckless, simpering, disloyal losers, that is, most of Smiley's senior colleagues at M15; this seemed to be le Carré's original intent in the books. In short, with the exception of guns and torture, Smiley's M15 could well be the firm in Margin Call. There is no Harry Potteresque struggle of good and evil in either film; simply the reaction and counter-reaction of characters trapped in institutions seeking their own individual self-interest in a world of blind forces and powers far greater than they. Smiley rises not because he is necessarily "better" than anyone else, or that he represents a higher calling, but because, like Irons' character, he's shrewder. He's got the new glasses.

And perhaps that's why both movies feel representative of the moment, not just the morally ambiguous aftermath of the financial crisis, but the slow collapse of the Eurozone. We have made some miscalculations. Adjustments are necessary. The innocent must suffer, but the interests of the institution must go before the nation or individual. Means justify ends. Stuff happens, so deal with it.