Margin Call (2011)

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Do you understand the 2008 financial crisis? We all know about it, but how many of us could describe, with any kind of authority, what actually happened when the world economy tanked a decade ago? I certainly can’t, and I don’t think I’m alone in that, which makes it all the more impressive to me that Margin Call, J.C. Chandor’s slick, efficient thriller about a major investment bank on the eve of the crisis, manages to spin such a compelling story out of such opaque real-world events. I think it’s one of the best movies of the past several years—or at least the most thrilling, finely crafted, and piercingly insightful one yet made about the 2008 crisis and contemporary capitalism.

There is, admittedly, not a lot of competition there. Cynical though it may be, one can understand how profit-minded studio executives might be skeptical of drama manifested in numbers and balance sheets. Most other entries in the genre (let’s call it ‘financial thriller’) tend to be squarely polemical—either satirical depictions of greed like The Wolf of Wall Street or Oliver Stone’s 1987 Wall Street, or else advocacy documentaries like Capitalism: A Love Story or Charles Ferguson’s Inside Job.[i] Margin Call strikes something of a balance between the two, giving us a sense of the numbing scale and complexity of the crisis as well as the way it affects—and is affected by—the human qualities of the people involved, and for this reason its portrayal of a Wall Street firm feels both more realistic and more insightful. It’s the rare fact-based story that finds drama not just in showing what happened, but in trying to understand why it happened.

Which is especially impressive when you consider that unlike its genre peers, Margin Call depicts neither the financial shenanigans that lead to the collapse (in this case, a fictionalized version of the real one in 2008) nor its messy aftermath; instead, it unfolds over a single 36-hour period at a fictional Wall Street bank at the very beginning of the crisis. Nor does it revolve around a single protagonist, instead following a diffuse collection of employees from all levels of the company hierarchy as they grapple with the sudden revelation that their firm is on the brink of ruin. In the wrong hands it easily could’ve been stuffy and tedious, but Chandor makes the movie, in its own way, just as intense as any high-stakes thriller. It’s a different, less familiar sort of tension, though: subtle and slow-burning, based not so much on in-your-face stress as on building up a pervasive sense of dread and desperation.

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With a remarkable sureness of touch for one directing his first feature film, Chandor establishes this sense of unease right from the start. The first shot is a time-lapse of mid-town Manhattan from up in one of the skyscrapers, so high that we’re unable to see any of the human activity at street level. We only see the cityscape, distorted by a fish-eye lens, so much of it contained in the frame that it’s almost difficult to pick out individual structures. With the added distraction of the opening credits, we barely notice the clouds roiling overhead.

Then we’re inside the office, where several smartly dressed corporate operatives are walking purposefully down a hallway, carrying dossiers and boxes of pamphlets. It’s clear from the expressions of the employees watching them, and from the undercurrent of anxiety in the mournful score, that their presence is bad news. “Jesus Christ,” one young man says to another, “Are they going to do it right here?” Hearing only the audio, you might think he was watching the lead-up to some sort of summary execution.

In a sense, he is. The new arrivals are professional corporate ‘downsizers,’ contracted to carry out a cruelly sweeping (and, it appears, relatively routine) round of layoffs.[ii] The young men watching them are Seth Bregman and Peter Sullivan, junior number crunchers in the firm’s Risk Management department. The head trader, a congenially cynical Brit named Will Emerson, advises them to keep their heads down and try to ignore it.

Peter and Seth make it through the day, but one of the unfortunate ones is Eric Dale, their boss in the Risk department, whose firing we see in all its canned, courteous brutality. (The downsizers are unfailingly polite, but never allow him to complete a sentence of protest.) On his way out, Eric, his suppressed devastation conveyed with masterful understatement by Stanley Tucci, tells Peter that he was on the verge of finishing a major project, and slips his surprised protégé a flash drive containing the file.

What follows is the first major dramatic development in the story: As the elevator doors close, Eric tells Peter, “Be careful.” That phrase is common in movies, almost to the point of cliché, but I can’t remember the last time it had the kind of thrilling effect that it does here. Tucci delivers it impeccably: in an entirely natural, almost flat tone that’s still somehow laden with mystery and dread. There is no background score, but the low, dissonant thrum of the elevator door adds much to the sense of foreboding. It’s a perfect example of the subdued tension (and the skill with which Chandor and his cast convey it) that will make this movie exceptional.

Understandably intrigued, Peter stays late that night while Will, Seth, and the others are out celebrating their survival in a swanky Manhattan bar. Awash in the computer-blue glow of the darkened trading floor, he sifts through data and scribbles down lots of complex-looking math in a notebook, until suddenly, in an oh-shit moment conveyed with perfect understatement by Zachary Quinto (no hammy dialogue or hyperventilating, just stunned silence, a hand blindly pulling out his earphones, and a quiet moment of panic before he reaches desperately for the phone), he realizes…

What, exactly? It isn’t clearly spelled out, and yet the moment works because even though we don’t understand what he’s just discovered, we can still understand—indeed, we can almost feel—its implications. Margin Call falls squarely in the realm of fiction, but one of its greatest strengths is this oblique relation to real-world events. For pretty much everyone except finance industry insiders, the intricacies of what went wrong in 2008 remain far too convoluted to grasp, but the consequences for ordinary people were straightforward enough: foreclosure, loss of jobs, vanished savings and pensions, general financial misery. Our characters refer to it only in brief moments of speculation—for them, after all, it hasn’t happened yet, nor do they really care, in the moment, how it might affect anyone else—but our awareness of the devastating effects their actions will have remains a huge contributing factor to the undercurrent of suspense coursing through the story. By restricting the movie’s time frame to the day immediately preceding the crash, Chandor avoids having to show us his own narrow, most likely inadequate representation of the economic havoc that follows it. Instead, he’s able to let our own experience provide most of the gravitas and moral heft in a story that we might not otherwise find particularly relatable.

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When he frantically summons Seth and Will back to the office, Peter explains his discovery in more detail: the mortgage-backed assets that most of the firms capital has been invested into are starting to push beyond their predicted volatility levels, leaving all that capital increasingly vulnerable. I know—I’m not sure I fully understand what that means, either. But the takeaway is clear: if things continue as they are, those toxic assets will soon cause losses greater than the current value of the company.

From there, the bad news quickly works its way up the company hierarchy: to Will’s boss in the trading department, an aging company veteran named Sam Rogers; to younger hotshot executives Jared Cohen and Sarah Robertson; and finally to the firm’s charismatic, unflappable CEO John Tuld, played a terrifically suave and ruthless Jeremy Irons. Over the course of the night and the wee hours of the next morning, they debate what to do about the firm’s impending collapse, eventually making the fateful decision to perform a ‘fire sale’—that is, sell all the toxic assets in a single day of trading, which will initiate a crisis in the market once their counterparts realize what’s happening, but will save them from the worst of the damage.

There’s drama in that story, but it’s the way Chandor tells it that sets Margin Call apart from other financial thrillers. Here again, the key lies in narrowing the movie’s focus to the 36 hours before the crisis, a seemingly minor adjustment that allows Chandor to add many interesting dimensions to the story. For one thing, the characters rarely leave the high-rise offices of the firm: a slick, spotless world of cubicles and conference rooms, illuminated by soft blues and yellows evocative of high-end efficiency. It’s an entirely synthetic space, devoid of anything naturally occurring, and a fitting representation of the financial elite’s position: right at the heart of society, but closed off from everyday reality, secluded in the rarified world of their profession.

Chandor and cinematographer Frank DeMarco manage to do a lot with that limited space, filming it to reflect the mindset of the characters as the situation grows increasingly desperate. At the beginning, we spend most of our time on the trading floor, a open room full of desks and computers with expansive views of the city below. As the story progresses, the spaces degrade, so to speak, becoming tighter, more ordinary, and less indicative of wealth and power. When we first meet Sam’s bosses, Jared and Sarah, it’s in one of those glass-walled conference rooms—the kind designed to belittle everyone else in the surrounding office by letting them see but not hear the important meeting taking place within. But the setting for the next meeting, in which CEO Tuld first appears, is drab by comparison, cramped and nearly windowless, with plain white walls. From there, the movie moves into common rooms and individual offices, and by the third act, when the characters are scrambling to put together a plan, the short, on-the-fly interactions are happening in the men’s room, in the parking garage, and on the steps of a Brooklyn brownstone.

All of which is to make Margin Call seem grimmer and more somber than it actually is. However grave the consequences, there’s a thrill in watching the shock and panic at each successive level of the hierarchy as Peter’s discovery metastasizes into a full-blown existential crisis for the firm—it’s fun to see these smart, successful, almost arrogantly confident people floored by a situation they can no longer control. Chandor also manages to work in a few strains of darkly comic irony, the most obvious being that the higher a person sits on the corporate ladder, the less clearly they understand the reckless trading practices that have gotten the firm into this mess in the first place. (“Oh Jesus, you know I can’t fucking read these things,” Sam says when presented with a complex mathematical model; later on, Tuld asks Peter to explain everything to him “as you might to a young child, or a golden retriever.”) Furthermore, the person who understands the situation best, Eric, is rendered unreachable after the firm, in a classic instance of heartless corporate efficiency, deactivates his phone the moment he leaves the building.

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There’s also great enjoyment to be had in listening to Chandor’s lively, razor-sharp dialogue. Margin Call sometimes has the feel of a play more than a movie, with words serving as the primary driver of the plot and character development; the visuals could be taken out entirely and the story would be less compelling but still perfectly understandable. The dialogue is fast-paced and witty but never contrived, neatly articulate but never unrealistically dense—and, most importantly, keenly aware of the rules of etiquette that govern this hierarchical corporate culture. The characters don’t sound like the operatically greedy loudmouths of an Oliver Stone movie, or the hyper-articulate verbal machine guns of Aaron Sorkin or David Mamet. There’s an authenticity in the way they talk, swearing often but rarely with any real venom; each one subtly adjusting his or her behavior according to the rank of the other people in the room; and always referring to the crisis in carefully guarded terms, as if minimizing the damage in speech might somehow mitigate it in real life. Upon confirming that Peter is correct and the firm is headed for ruin, all Sarah can manage is a pensive, “So, we’ve gotten ourselves quite exposed here.”

And it’s here, in its approach to character, that Margin Call is most exceptional. At the beginning, Peter seems set up to be the protagonist, but after making his initial discovery he quickly becomes just one of many key players—eight including Eric, whose role is substantial despite being absent for much of the movie. Chandor’s script gives them all more or less equal attention, progressing as a series of contractions and expansions: It brings several characters together in a meeting and then breaks them off into smaller conversations. With only a few exceptions, everyone speaks one-on-one with everyone else at some point, and each scene explores the differing dynamics between them, adding extra tension and character development to interactions that would otherwise serve purely to advance the plot.

Chandor’s talented cast conveys this complex web of relationships with unerring precision. Paul Bettany is terrific as the swaggering but self-aware Will, letting us see the undercurrent of resentment in his interactions with Jared, a fellow rising star at the firm who at some point pulled ahead of him in the race to the company leadership. Even more intense is the battle of wills simmering beneath the outwardly civil exchanges between Simon Baker and Demi Moore as Jared and Sarah, who realize that as the senior executives most responsible for the current predicament, only one of them is going to make it through the night with their career intact. Zachary Quinto skillfully telegraphs the subtle transformation of Peter, a math whiz and basically decent guy for whom a welcome numbers challenge quickly escalates into an ethical quandary that he is neither prepared nor authorized to tackle. I loved Jeremy Irons’ beguiling, nuanced performance as Tuld: simultaneously charming and intimidating, receptive to criticism and misgivings yet coldly pragmatic, paying lip service to humility while retaining a supreme faith in his own intelligence and judgment, he captures perfectly the toxic attitude of those at the very top of the corporate ladder. When Peter is called upon to explain his findings to the boardroom, Tuld is courteous, takes the pressure off, listens to him and seems to recognize his intelligence, then waves him away indifferently, like he’s closing a window on a computer. But Tuld behaves differently with Sam, with whom he seems to have started at the firm many years ago; they speak like old colleagues who were once corporate equals, if never close friends. Kevin Spacey turns in the best performance of them all as Sam, expertly conveying, as the long night drags on, the incremental culmination of a crisis of faith many years in the making. At the beginning, Sam is already in rough shape—in the movie’s one foray into obvious symbolism, his dog is dying. But when he gives a short pep talk to the survivors of the layoffs, he’s sincere, even if his speech is rather trite. When he speaks to the same group at the end of the movie, trying to give them the necessary motivation to pull off the fire sale that will destroy their careers, it’s clear that he no longer believes what he’s saying.

This wide-ranging cast of characters is a departure from other Wall Street movies, which tend to explore the ambition and greed of a few individuals. Among other critics, Christopher Orr figured it out. Margin Call isn’t a corporate drama; it’s a disaster movie, genetically more similar to The Day After Tomorrow than it is to Wall Street.[iii] For me, the closest recent cinematic relative is Steven Soderbergh’s excellent pandemic thriller Contagion, which is also about an assortment of smart, capable people struggling to contain an uncontainable crisis. The difference here is that it’s not a natural catastrophe, but one they have created themselves—a kind of financial Frankenstein’s monster. Chandor gives each of his characters enough color and personality to make them relatable, but he’s only interested in them in the context of the current calamity—any extra back-story or deeper exploration of their psychology would have seemed superfluous.[iv] The larger-than-life characters of other Wall Street movies, like the famous Gordon Gekko of Wall Street, are fun to watch but also easy to write off as overdone and excessive—entertaining personifications of corporate greed but not directly representative of anyone in the real world. It’s easy for financial thrillers to have unambiguous villains like these.

But most bankers, however greedy and callous, aren’t theatrically evil, and neither is anyone in the movie. Nevertheless, the movie’s restricted time frame never lets us lose sight of the deeply unethical actions they’re taking, ensuring that they’re never absolved of responsibility. When one senior executive gets fired near the end, for example, we can’t help but share in their quiet devastation. It isn’t until that scene is over, and you remember the broader context, that you think, “Wait, this person should be getting fired! They should all be getting fired! Several of them, at least, should be going to jail!”

The thing I find most remarkable about Margin Call is that it gives compelling dramatic expression to a dramatically unsatisfying idea: that the true culprit in the financial crisis wasn’t individual wrongdoing so much as a corporate culture that has lost its sense of human decency (if it ever had one to begin with). The characters may be recognizable human beings, but the firm—the corporate ‘person’ that they collectively constitute—is a clear-cut sociopath, incapable of acting except in its own self-interest and lacking any sort of moral conscience.

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Describing to Tuld the practices that have put the firm in crisis, Peter dryly notes, “This has been enormously profitable, as I imagine you noticed.” Leading up to the events of the movie, they’ve taken the most profitable course available to them. Now it’s about to blow up in their face, and they’re faced with another choice: whether or not to go through with the fire sale. Objections are raised—selling something that they know has no value, knowingly initiating a crisis, killing the market on which so much depends, etc.—but the final decision is never really in doubt. Several characters offer variations on the phrase “We don’t have a choice,” and the unsettling thing is that in purely business terms, they’re right. What else can they do? As Peter’s findings show, the damage has already been done—the ship is heading full steam towards an iceberg, and they can either take the only lifeboat for themselves or alert the other passengers and go down with them. A movie that does much to humanize Wall Street also ends up making a cogent argument for stringent regulation of the financial industry. Anything the firm can do to make more money and preserve its own existence, it will invariably do, at the expense of everyone else. Any broader sense of right and wrong, or even of basic self-preservation beyond short-term profit, needs to be forcibly injected into its thinking.

But in a final inspired touch, Chandor also refuses to portray the crisis as the work of a single corrupted industry. In one of the movie’s few monologues, Will offers an explanation for the firm’s actions, lambasting the ‘normal’ people who benefit, however indirectly or unequally, from the artificial stimulus that the financial sector provides the Western economy. “The only reason they all get to continue living like kings,” he says, “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 want what we have to give them, but they also want to play innocent and pretend they have no idea where it came from. Well, that’s more hypocrisy than I’m willing to swallow, so fuck ‘em.”

Margin Call is an exceptionally well-made movie, but this, I think, is what makes it truly great. It reminds us that the people who wrought economic havoc on the world, so easy to think of as cartoon villains, were human beings, and compellingly examines the role of human reasoning and emotion in creating the crisis. The worldview that Will articulates is grossly distorted and self-serving, but it is, in its own twisted way, coherent. I came away understanding, if not condoning, how a career spent in finance might lead an otherwise rational, intelligent person to think that way. This movie gets to the heart of what is rotten about contemporary capitalism: it inevitably leads people and institutions into decisions, like all of the ones the firm makes throughout the movie, that are both logically convincing and morally indefensible.

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© Harrison Swan, 2019

[i] I’m not saying there’s anything wrong with those movies the way they are, by the way. Inside Job in particular is a superb piece of muckraking journalism, forgoing the easy route of sensationalist moralizing in favor of careful, articulate explanation. It remains the only account of the financial crisis (in any medium) that left me thinking, “OK, I understand this,” and, not coincidentally, the one that left me angriest at the end. Michael Moore could take a lesson from Charles Ferguson: with the financial crisis, you don’t need to tell sob stories about the fallout or expose anyone as a hypocrite on camera. Just explain what happened, and any moral person will be left practically shaking with rage.

[ii] By the way, “downsizer” is also the position of George Clooney’s character in Up In The Air, which examines this bizarre but real profession in greater depth, and with much more humor.

[iii] For the rest of this exceptional, much more concise review: http://www.theatlantic.com/entertainment/archive/2011/10/margin-call-a-financial-crisis-film-thats-on-the-money/247116/

[iv] This is the main reason, I think, why the seemingly obligatory attempts at back-story and in-depth character development tend to fall flat in most disaster movies—especially ones where the characters have a life-threatening cataclysm to worry about, like The Day After Tomorrow. I don’t think it’s any coincidence that the best such movie of the last decade or so, Contagion, is also the one least interested in its characters’ personal lives outside of their relation to the disaster. That doesn’t mean the characters can’t be sympathetic or interesting (in Contagion, they very much are), it just means that these qualities have to arise naturally out of the situation at hand, which is much harder to pull off than the tired methods that lesser blockbusters typically employ.

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