J.C. Chandor’s debut film is set inside a large Wall Street investment bank during the very early stages of the 2007/08 financial crisis, and to a certain extent it’s about the heartlessness and harshness of the financial industry, as well as the singular, driven nature of some of those who work – or who did work – within it. It opens with a mass redundancy. Paul Bettany’s head trader has seen it all before and has some simple, sage advice for a younger risk analyst played by Penn Badgley: keep your head down all morning and don’t look at anyone. It’s possible Bettany’s character, and a few other members of staff, have seen it coming, though not Stanley Tucci’s risk manager Eric Dale; he’s given a severence package and unceremoniously escorted to the door, his company smartphone cancelled before he’s even reached the ground floor of the building. Dale suspects he has been stitched up by a colleague, a fellow manager played by Demi Moore. In the aftermath of the sackings we see trading floor manager Sam Rogers (Kevin Spacey) greet the surviving staff members and instigate a round of applause, which is met enthusiastically by the lucky few who still have jobs; to mourn for friends and other colleagues in this game is, one presumes, a sign of weakness. All of this takes place within the first twenty minutes of Margin Call, and it gives us some insight into the dog-eat-dog, unsentimental nature of the industry, which is present and important throughout the rest of the film. This is the industry, we are told, and if you don’t like it there are plenty of other jobs out there.
Before Dale leaves he passes on a memory stick to another analyst named Peter Sullivan, played by Zachary Quinto. It turns out that Tucci’s character was close to predicting the financial collapse, and it’s up to Sullivan to finish the work off. He works late into the night, even though his colleagues have gone to a bar to talk endlessly about status symbols and salaries, and eventually spots the problem that will likely ruin the bank if action isn’t taken immediately. The rest of the film follows the characters as they discuss their options and then take the necessary steps to ensure the company’s survival, and the drama largely plays out through a series of clear, well-written conversations, the best of which take place in the two most important locations in any corporation’s headquarters: the boardroom and the bathroom.
It features an all-star cast, with Simon Baker excelling as a young, dynamic and utterly ruthless head of capital markets, and Jeremy Irons delivering one of his best turns in recent years as the imposing CEO and Chairman of the Board, doing for this film what Alec Baldwin did for Glengarry Glen Ross. Initially it’s fascinating to watch these characters discuss the pros and cons of the decisions they take – the meetings that occur escalate upwards until the entire Board is present at 3AM – while subsequently (once the decision is made to get rid of the firm’s mortgage-backed securities in a fire sale) the main players are broken down into groups of two or three. There are clear conflicts and discussions that touch on moral issues as well as fiscal sense: the firm needs Dale – a man who was sacked hours earlier – to come back in, and deals with the former employee’s bitterness even more ruthlessly to ensure it happens; and Rogers knows that selling off the assets before other firms figure out what’s going on will save the company in the short-term, but in the long-term it will destroy all the relationships they have spent years building up, and will also contribute to wider instability in the markets. Throughout we see major and minor characters leaving with boxes of their possessions, a familiar and striking image from real news reports at the time: Rogers is aware that the careers of his traders will be ruined, and this seems to weigh more heavily on his conscience than with the other senior figures of the firm. He offers his staff an incentive to work hard, even though they all know the chop is coming, and the giant seven-figure bonuses bandied around for those who can hit their targets and get rid of the securities is as startling as it is obscene. It’s a desperate bid for survival, and one last grab at huge sums of cash. To hell with everybody else.
Chandor is too subtle a writer to completely demonise his characters, though if you had any sympathy for the cast members who play junior traders and analysts in the first place it’ll gradually seep away as they repeatedly compare their salaries, or the amounts they have spent in a year on prostitutes, booze and fine dining (all claimed back on expenses, of course). At one point we glimpse the car belonging to Bettany’s trader, which he claims cost more than $150,000 – while he dismisses the notion that he should feel more concern for all the people who will lose their homes when the mortgage market collapses. Gordon Gekko, presumably watching from up on high in another building, would doubtless be proud.
Discussion of technical financial information is a notorious turn-off for many viewers, but Chandor’s script manages to take complex ideas and make them understandable for those who may not be familiar with the practices of the trading floor, and to his credit he did this without asking Margot Robbie to deliver the facts while sitting in a bath. The conversations incorporate a certain amount of jargon, which makes them seem authentic, but they never serve to exclude the viewer from what’s going on. This is crucial, but just as importantly there’s no sense that Chandor is dumbing the material down either. The bank in question here is never named, but it’s possible it’s supposed to be Lehman Brothers (Irons’ character’s name is John Tuld, which bears a resemblance to former Lehman CEO Dick Fuld, the so-called ‘Gorilla of Wall Street’). The action in Margin Call rarely breaks clear of the building occupied by the bank, but the director – smartly – uses a variety of sets, including offices and meeting rooms, as you might expect, but also underground car parks, rooftop terraces and toilets, which provides some welcome respite from the packed rows of monitors. Whenever I see a trading floor, either in films or on the news, it usually looks like a terrible environment to work in, and as the hours pass by the office in Margin Call takes on an air of claustrophobia, so the brief detours away from it allow the film to breathe; but they are brief. Much of the story takes place at night, with crisp cinematography from Frank DeMarco occasionally revealing the nearby Wall Street buildings outside, or the sprawl of Manhattan more generally. I can’t remember a time when New York has seemed less appealing as a place to be, though.
Chandor has made three films now – this came out in 2011 – and one thing’s for certain: he’s a fine director of actors. Actually, here’s another: the guy can write. And here’s another: he’s a confident filmmaker; few would take on a subject like this for their debut (while fewer still would follow it up with a largely dialogue-free piece about a man caught in a storm at sea). Given its proximity to the actual crisis, it’s impressive that he managed to get plenty of perspective on events; it has taken a while for other filmmakers to catch up, though in recent months we’ve had Adam McKay’s The Big Short and Ramin Bahrani’s 99 Homes, the latter of which looks at the effect of the crisis away from the financial hub of New York. My one gripe with Chandor’s film is that the bookending sub-plot involving Sam Rogers’ dog, which is dying of cancer, is a little too obvious an allegory for a financial industry about to suffer its own health crisis, though it does at least lead to a deliciously ambiguous final scene.
Directed by: J.C. Chandor.
Written by: J.C. Chandor.
Starring: Kevin Spacey, Paul Bettany, Stanley Tucci, Demi Moore, Zachary Quinto, Penn Badgley, Jeremy Irons, Simon Baker.
Cinematography: Frank DeMarco.
Editing: Pete Beaudreau.
Music: Nathan Larson.
Running Time: 106 minutes.