Margin Call is essentially the fiction counterpart to the scathing documentary condemnation of Wall Street hubris, Inside Job. Err, except that it is actually based on all too chillingly real story—48 hours in the life of a investment firm during the 2008 meltdown. In that sense, the tension is psychological but no less thrilling, and unlike Wall Street and Boiler Room, it does away with the aggrandization of the macho-centric “old boy network” and slicked-back-hair-swagger of the financial world. J.C. Chandor’s debut, featuring a star cast including Kevin Spacey, Stanley Tucci, Demi Moore, and Jeremy Irons, attempts to humanize what are essentially two-dimensional caricatures in the public consciousness—the Wall Street “fat cats” and their trader underling whiz kids. It’s a film that raises more questions than it answers, as it should be—it’s a trenchant commentary on the nebulousness of the word accountability and morality or right or wrong in the paper world of money–literally.
Zachary Quinto plays a young risk management wonk, with a Ph.D. in rocket science no less, who, after some late-night number crunching, “discovers” that the firm is leveraged beyond historical limits and that at current market volatility levels, it is looking to incur losses greater than its value. The big guns are called in, including the CEO [played with appropriate Euro-trash bluster by Jeremy Irons] who literally helicopters in to weigh in with the decision on how to offload the toxic assets pronto. Kevin Spacey turns in a spectacular performance as a world-weary trading floor boss on who falls the burden of doing the dirty job of selling worthless instruments. His character in particular is extremely interesting and nuanced—he resists management’s “sell something worth nothing” plan not from a moral high ground but from the perspective of a veteran salesman—“We are not in the business of selling. We are in the business of buying and selling. And we only sell stuff that we know people will come back for. No one will trust us again.” In his amoral, strange, yet stoically samurai-esque way, he has loyalty to the firm—not its CEOs and not the market. He is also not oblivious to the cut-throat nature of their business—after a particularly brutal lay-off of 80% of his traders, he advises the ones left behind that their co-workers are “not to be thought of again.” His exchange with Quinto’s character on whether selling the assets is “the right thing to do” really encapsulates the message of the whole film–“For whom?” “I am not sure.” “Neither am I.”
Margin Call deserves credit for shining a light on a really broad scope of the Wall Street milieu. For example, the firing of Sarah Robertson, Demi Moore’s risk management character, while her male counterpart stayed on hinted at the chauvinistic nature of the business. The dialogue between the junior staff about their being glorified computer junkies and about this being a game of “one guy wins, one guy loses,” as well as the “f*** normal people” nihilistic ethos of the business was nicely and subtly portrayed. The CEO’s assertion that it “wasn’t brains that got [him] here” were a cheeky comment on the current discourse on the Wall Street fat cats. The hookers-and-blow excess also added a realistic touch to the picture.
Considering that we are still in the midst of the economic quagmire that Margin Call alludes to, the film nicely manages to avoid running into the “too soon” category. No Ph.D. in Economics required, it aptly presents the situation for what it is—with no easy answers, while steering clear of the blatant and vapid money-worship of older financial thrillers like Wall Street. The characters are fallible and complex—some are American Psycho’s Patrick Bateman-esque, some, like Kevin Spacey’s character, are downright likable. In other words, it takes the fairly dehumanized version of the investment banker bad guy and at least attempts to explore him, even though humanization, redemption, or understanding is not exactly easy to come by either.