No matter what interests people might generally have and no matter how deep their dislike for finance-talk may be, the 2008 recession is a must-know area for everyone in the world. With the markets collapsing, financial institutions filing for bankruptcy, and normal citizens losing jobs – and sometimes, tragically, their lives – a lot of lessons need to be learnt in order to move forward. Margin Call certainly doesn’t offer these lessons; neither does it claim to be the definitive film on the events leading to the global financial meltdown. However, what it does offer is a fictionalized account of the mistakes that were committed. Thoroughly engaging and insightful in equal parts, it is a must-see for anyone who has followed the industry through these past few years.
Movies about finance, by definition, tend to be boring to most people. Viewers don’t want to hear money-talk for two hours. Even the best films about Wall Street, with one of the most famous being named as such, tend to be of the drama and thriller variety where the backdrop of New York’s famous financial district provides for a lot of excitement. By basing its story on the events leading to the global financial meltdown of 2008, Margin Call is mostly people talking about finance with minor moments of levity in-between. However, this is definitely one instance where all of the money-talk never feels bland or boring. The film doesn’t descend into the deepest recesses of financial technicalities, thereby distancing itself from the viewer. If someone understands all the finance-talk, then they will be able to enjoy the conversations the characters have in the film. If someone doesn’t, then the movie has sufficient exposition to keep the casual viewer engaged while still offering enough to earn its classification as a traditional thriller.
Before Margin Call ventures into the crux of its plotline, it exquisitely sets up each of the primary characters. Eric Dale (Stanley Tucci), who is a risk-management expert and has been working on some figures which need to be completed, is one of the eighty-percent of employees let go by “The Firm.” He hands over his incomplete findings to Peter Sullivan (Zachary Quinto), one of the people working under him, and asks him to “be careful.” While the rest of the survivors go party, Peter, intrigued by Eric’s final words, begins filling up the loose ends in order to complete the research. Once finished, his projections are unfathomable as it indicates losses exceeding the entire market capitalization of “The Firm.” He places a call to his co-worker Seth Bregman (Penn Badgley) who comes back along with their boss Will Emerson (Paul Bettany) to take a look at the findings. Will takes one look and calls in his boss Sam Rogers (Kevin Spacey) who does likewise to his superiors Jared Cohen (Simon Baker) and Sarah Robertson (Demi Moore). The latter pair eventually decides that the situation calls for a meeting with the executive committee and the CEO John Tuld (Jeremy Irons). The solution is simple: Sell all these toxic securities by the end of the next trading day. The consequences are incomprehensible, but at least the company’s future will be secure, is the reasoning.
Despite looking at some of the people who must be held culpable for the recession, Margin Call never lays blame solely at their feet. As written by J.C. Chandor (also directing his debut feature), these characters are materialistic. Money literally talks in their world and their first loyalty is to themselves. Yet, they are not decidedly evil. They are distinctly human and much of their behavior simply mimics what we might’ve done in their shoes. Additionally, the film also demonstrates that regular citizens are equally responsible for their actions, as highlighted by Will Emerson’s brilliant monologue, which is easily the film’s best. They want mortgages to pay for all the comforts in their lives while turning a blind-eye to the associated risks. But the moment their world collapses, they are quick to blame someone else instead of looking at themselves. Yes, the major financial institutions and the unregulated markets must take the majority of the blame for what happened, but that doesn’t completely absolve the common man of his mistakes.
The ambience the film sets up is the primary reason it is so effective. On a purely visual level, this isn’t that difficult to accomplish with the office environment, the meeting rooms, and the suits all being in place. But it is on the personal level that the attention to detail is simply astounding. Whether it is Will making an off-hand remark about how certain younger people are being promoted over him or Sam, Jared, and John demonstrating their lack of understanding of the technicalities of the findings, the film is steeped in credibility. This lends an incredible sense of reality to the proceedings that makes the decisions they take seem even more chilling. As viewers, we almost feel part of the proceedings as they knowingly lead the world to financial disaster.
The cast and performances can make or break a film like Margin Call; in this case, it is positively the former. Kevin Spacey has the most human character in the film, for what it is worth. He is perfectly able to capture the moral dilemma of making the decisions he has to make while still remaining loyal to the employer under whom he has worked for 34 years. Jeremy Irons oozes class in his role as the CEO. From the moment he appears on screen, you never question that this is the man who makes the big decisions; his British accent just adds that something extra which is necessary for the role. Paul Bettany brings his considerable British cynicism to his role and delivers the film’s best monologue to perfection. The supporting actors all fill in capably in their respective roles.
Margin Call is certainly a film for our times. The amount of fictionalization of events is open to interpretation, but there is little doubt that most of what is portrayed in the film actually happened, maybe not necessarily in the same manner. Nevertheless, as a motion picture that offers an up-close look at the deepest interiors of Wall Street during the most troubling time of the 21st century, Margin Call is simply an unmitigated success.