Review of Rogue Trader

Rogue Trader (1999)
It's like watching a train wreck in slow motion
14 July 1999
I'll get a lot of argument on this, I suspect, but I tend to think that all history, biography and autobiography is in fact a kind of fiction. I also think that for all intents and purposes, it's not necessary to worry too much about how 'true' or 'accurate' this film is in regards to telling the 'real' story of the Baring's Bank collapse. Because at the end of the day, we'll never know. For every person involved or affected by that event there's another version of the truth, and finding the 'true' truth is just about impossible. So to hell with it! Let's just look at 'Rogue Trader' as a story, shall we?

I can't honestly say that I enjoyed this film, mainly because I found it so exquisitely awful that I was scrunching my eyes shut and moaning more and more loudly as events unfolded. As depicted here, Nick Leeson wasn't exactly a criminal, he was just criminally stupid ... and naive ... and pathetic ... and -- and -- well, I found myself screaming at the tv set "No, you fool, don't, stop now, stop now, quit while you're ahead --- arrrrggghhh!!!"

It is almost impossible to believe, that one person could collapse an entire bank. And of course, it is impossible. Nick Lesson didn't bring down Baring's on his own, he had a lot of help from people who both wittingly and unwittingly conspired to support his insane behaviour. Regardless of whose truth you're telling, that point is pretty safe to make, I think. And I think this film does a good job of demonstrating that. I also think it does a good job of capturing the insanity of Futures Trading (surely a hideously evil invention) and of showing how Gordon Gekko got it really, really wrong.

At the end of the day, however, the film stands or falls by Ewan McGregor's performace as Nick Leeson ... and again, he doesn't disappoint. Again, we are treated to a portrayal of a deeply human, deeply flawed individual, as only McGregor can reveal. His Leeson is a man who makes mistake after mistake, who is far smaller than he wants to be, who isn't without conscience or moral compass but whose many fears outweigh his few strengths. He's the very embodiment of the 'fatal flaw' theory, brought to ruin by his weaknesses and failings.

I find it frighteningly easy to identify with McGregor's Leeson. What he did, many of us have been tempted to do, or have done, in various small ways. Or maybe not so small. Some people find him profoundly offensive, others find him pathetic. Whatever your reaction to this film, the fact that you even have one shows that it's worked. It's made you feel something about what happened ... or at least, this version of what happened. Perhaps some of us resent being made to feel any kind of empathy for this character. By making him human, his actions are humanised, made comprehensible ... and that's uncomfortable.

It's far more comfortable keeping him demonised, reprehensible, beyond understanding or forgiveness, for in that way we keep ourselves safe. We are not like him. There is nothing that we share. He is ... other.

The problem is, he isn't. That's where Rogue Trader succeeds, I think. In showing us that the Nick Leesons of this world aren't monsters at all ... they're people, like us, who make mistakes, like we do. By challenging us ... you say you would never ever do something like this, but can you be sure? Really? Truly? This isn't a lighthearted film, a fun film. It's a fascinating character study and a timely reminder of that saying that goes something like ..
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