Loved It: Moneyball, Margin Call, and the High Drama of the Spreadsheet

This Oscar season, PG-13 for Ugly Cast will be flipping a cordial bird to the arbitrary practice of rank-ordering movies. Instead, we will highlight a handful of Movie Things We Loved, with no pretense of objectivity or internal consistency. Deal with it.

In the dim caverns of the internet, I’m a blogger. But in the daylight of the real world, I’m a high school math teacher. I’m often disappointed when math and movies meet – most filmmakers, like most humans, hate math, and struggle to squeeze drama from the seemingly bland certainty of equations and formulas. Movies also make some embarrassing mistakes, from A Beautiful Mind mangling the idea of a Nash equilibrium to Matt Damon in Good Will Hunting proving his once-in-a-century genius by… simplifying a fraction.

But Moneyball and Margin Call – two of my favorite movies of 2011, rhyming division – got the math emphatically right. Specifically, they showed our world as it is: powered by spreadsheets.

Moneyball tells the story of how the underfunded, overlooked Oakland A’s managed to win a record 20 straight games on the strength of nothing but smart statistical analysis. The film omits some inconvenient facts, but don’t let me nitpick: this is an Oscar-nominated, Brad Pitt-starring film about the power of numbers. The camera pans thoughtfully across data tables. Jonah Hill patiently explains the tenets of sabermetrics. And in the end, quantitative analysis triumphs over superstition. Math teachers nationwide, join me in cheering Moneyball – the perfect movie to show our students on those worthless half-days at the end of the schoolyear.

Margin Call – an even better film – tells the far darker story of how our economy collapsed. It’s set at a fictional (Lehman Brothers-inspired) investment bank that has gambled billions of dollars on risky assets. Working late one night, a young analyst (Zachary Quinto) builds a new mathematical model that reveals the market’s imminent collapse. He calls his boss, who calls his boss, who calls his boss, until suddenly it’s 3am and the CEO’s helicopter is landing on the roof for an emergency meeting. With its tight focus and grand monologues, the script unfolds like a gripping stageplay more than a Hollywood film.

Best of all (for math teachers, anyway), Margin Call makes no apologies for quantitiative jargon, or for the fact that the film’s inciting incident involves a PhD from MIT adjusting the variance assumptions in a financial model. We live in a world where numbers matter, where good math can solve intractable problems, and reckless math can bring the whole global economy to its knees. In a year where the most talked-about movies traffic in rosy-eyed nostalgia for the days before these darned computers, it’s invigorating to see a film that owns up to our society’s dependence on math, and recognizes the high drama of the humble spreadsheet.

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One thought on “Loved It: Moneyball, Margin Call, and the High Drama of the Spreadsheet

  1. Pingback: Movie Things We Loved | PG-13 for Ugly Cast

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