A group of investment bankers uncover the deep and dark abyss of the financial crisis during the early days in Margin Call, a solid drama.
Twentysomethings Seth Bregman (Penn Badgley), young and a bit jerky, and Peter Sullivan (Zachary Quinto), older and smart, watch from their banks of computers as human resources officials walk into the office, tapping people about to be axed. Just keep your heads down and keep working, says Will Emerson (Paul Bettany), a boss and veteran of previous downturns and layoffs. They are all a bit shocked when one of those tapped is Eric Dale (Stanley Tucci), a man senior enough that he had his own office and oversaw the group Seth and Peter worked in. Eric is canned and escorted out of the building so fast he doesn’t have time to finish what he’s working on — and nobody wants to hear about it from him. As he gets on the elevator to leave, he has just enough time to hand a thumb drive to Peter and tell him that it’s important someone looks at it. “Be careful,” he warns and then the door closes.
Later that night when Seth and Will go out drinking, Peter, a rocket scientist who picked finance because the money was better, starts looking through Eric’s work. What he realizes when working out the equations on the drive is that Eric had discovered not a mere problem with some numbers but a disaster, one that had already started. Because of instability in the market, the firm would very soon have more loss on its books than value in its company.
Peter calls Seth and Will, already several drinks into their evening, back. Will calls his boss, Sam Rogers (Kevin Spacey), back in to the office. Sam calls his boss, Jared Cohen (Simon Baker), who calls risk experts Sarah Robertson (Demi Moore) and Ramesh Shah (Aasif Mandvi) into the meeting. And then all of them go to meet with big boss John Tuld (Jeremy Irons), who has helicoptered in for the event. Through it all the firm’s various bosses all decide they want Eric Dale back, to talk to him and to keep him from talking. But, naturally, because they fired him, his cell phone was shut off before he left the building.
As the problem goes up each level, we understand the seriousness of the situation even if we don’t understand the specific financial instruments being described. And, actually, we understand that because we can remember how it all fell — that this bank was selling a thing we didn’t really understand to that bank and eventually both banks were taking a loss on it and it soon turned into industry- and then country-wide layoffs and panic and foreclosures (mortgages being both the beginning and then the end of the destruction cycle).
The movie sets up two interesting situations toward the end. The first is how this unnamed firm decides to deal with its problem of too many toxic assests. As the movie presents it, the solutions are to destroy the firm or destroy the market and it’s a nice bit of story-telling to watch which side the different characters come down on and how they make their peace with what happens. The second is a speech that Will gives as morning breaks and everyone begins to really understand how widespread the fallout from their discovery will be. Seth fears he may not make it through the deeper cuts that will inevitably come, which perhaps moves him for the first time to consider the plight of regular people. Will then voices a criticism of the role of “regular people” in the collapse — our spending and over-borrowing and failure to consider basic facts about where all the money was coming from. It’s a nice moment that keeps the movie from being about sharply dilineated villains and suckers, neither the damage nor the blame stopped with well-dressed, very well-paid guys on Wall Street. Margin Call isn’t Wall Street 2 or even Tower Heist, it doesn’t let us get away with setting up the crisis as an us-versus-them situation. It subtly shows us the reasoning behind the actions of the Thems and reminds us of the complicity of the Us.
Aside from the specifics of its subject matter, Margin Call is a very nice, well-acted tale about work. Not police work, where there’s shooting and physical jeopardy. Not medical work, where buzzers helpfully signal when the tension is going to mount. But regular work, office work where most of what we do seems very localized but occasionally it has bigger consequences. There are problems that a group of people with varying motives and opinions about each other have to solve together. There are moral compromises that people have to make to pay for things like the house their family lives in or the veterinarian who is taking care of their dog. There are calculations to be made about the future of the business or the industry or their own personal careers. The financial system setting gives this set-up more sexiness than it would have at, say, a paper company where to tell the stories of the workers it makes sense to mostly play it for laughs. But The Office let the financial crisis and corporate woes bleed into its story in a way that helped remind you exactly why people show up to the Scranton office building every day. Here, it’s the opposite — we get just enough of the personal details of the people in this office setting to remind you that their actions will have real-world effects on real flesh and blood humans.
Margin Call is engrossing even if you don’t understand every financial term and market twist. B+
Rated R for language. Written and directed by J.C. Chandor, Margin Call is an hour and 47 minutes long and is distributed by Roadside Attractions. It is screening locally and available via video on demand.