I miss New York. Spike Lee's latest film, 25th Hour, adapted from a novel by David Benioff, rekindled my appreciation and admiration of the unique blend of dynamism, idealism and hustle that characterizes the world's only capital city.
The story, which chronicles the final day of freedom for a convicted drug dealer facing seven years in prison, progresses under the shroud of the destroyed World Trade Center buildings. From the film's opening sequence depicting the twin towers of light, to the Springsteen song from The Rising in the closing credits, the effects of September 11th - both physical and psychological - never stray far from the screen.
Watching events unfold, one cannot help but think of that horrible day and of the reasons behind it. But in a disturbing undertone, the movie portrays one of the main characters, a Wall Street trader, in an unsympathetic light bordering on villainy. Is it just me, or was this juxtaposition intentional? You decide.
(Spoiler alert: plot details revealed below.)
The protagonist, Monty (Edward Norton), had been dealing drugs for a Russian crime syndicate. Unlike the usual cinematic portrayal of drug dealers, Monty exhibits few of the "bling-bling" accoutrements of the trade. His urban lifestyle is portrayed as quintessentially middle-class, complete with a classic car fetish. His money went toward a decent apartment, gifts for his nurturing girlfriend, and to provide financial support to his father, a retired firefighter operating an unprofitable bar for New York's Bravest.
His two childhood friends Jakob and Frank had chosen diametrically opposite paths: high school English teacher and securities trader. Jakob (Philip Seymour Hoffman) leads a lonely life in which his honest nature and his trust fund fail to make him competitive in the city's Darwinian dating scene. In his isolation, he develops a crush on the nearest kindred spirit, one of his talented and effusive 17-year old students.
In contrast, the financial pro Frank (Barry Pepper) has both the money and the trappings of success. Using trading strategies of his own design, he profits from fluctuations in the standard macroeconomic indicators: inflation and unemployment. But in the world outside of the trading room, he has neither social graces nor empathy. In fact, Frank demonstrates this all at once, eating rice with his fingers while taunting Jakob with visions of unattainable women.
The trio, thus established, seems to obliquely illustrate a world in which the economic trap of the drug dealer and the social liabilities of the schoolteacher are the indirect consequences of the financier's competitiveness on the job and in life. Frank attracts the best potential mates away from Jakob, and arbitrages the lawful middle-class jobs away from Monty. By the end of the film, Pepper's character has blood on his hands - literally and figuratively.
Yet that celluloid depiction doesn't ring true. First of all, profiting from unemployment and profiting from others' misperceptions about unemployment are hardly the same thing. If it weren't for traders speculating (and yes, profiting) on the movement of economic indicators that, by design, measure the level of hardship in the economy, those very hardships would be exacerbated by severe misallocations of capital.
Furthermore, the depiction of a Wall Street trader as a "master of the universe" is so 1980s. As Patrick Young points out in The New Capital Market Revolution, the forces unleashed by global connectivity and information technology have only just begun to reshape the financial markets, promising nothing except unpredictable and unprecedented consequences for everyone, including traders. Just look at the layoffs in the beleaguered financial world. In a competitive global economy, today's master of the universe could very well become tomorrow's maitre d'hotel.
Now that would be a Spike Lee joint worth seeing.
Villain or Victim?
"No broker, no banker, no middleman can count his position as being safe from the revolution. This is not an uprising which will be driven by the masses spilling spontaneously onto the streets. However, this is a revolution so profound in its global consequences for every single man, woman and child on Earth that it can (and likely will) bring masses onto the streets within a decade to overthrow the large lumbering government bureaucracies should they fail to appreciate the paradigm shift in world finance."
Patrick L. Young,
from The New Capital Market Revolution
(New York: Texere, 2003)