The producers of the new financial thriller “Margin Call” could not have picked a better time to release their film. In New York and beyond, people are taking to the streets to condemn the actions of financial firms just like the one dramatized by writer/director J.C. Chandor in his debut feature. As picket signs declare “We are the 99 percent,” “Margin Call” peeks behind the curtain on the so-called 1 percent, with a story that explores how selfishness propelled the 2008 credit crisis.
We begin with Eric Dale (Stanley Tucci), the first victim of a mass firing at a fictional firm loosely based on Lehman Brothers. He handles his firing with patience, spiked with feelings of betrayal. Before he is escorted from the building, Dale hands a portable drive containing some suspicious data to Peter Sullivan, a whiz-kid analyst played by Zachary Quinto, warning him to be careful. A few hours later, Sam Rogers (Kevin Spacey), the manager of their floor, addresses the few remaining members of his team, encouraging them to keep working despite the mass firing and to seize the opportunity to get ahead. Rattled but relieved, the traders convene at a bar to celebrate not being fired, leaving Peter to study the mysterious flash drive.
When Peter unlocks the missing data, he discovers his firm is in a financial nosedive, the result of risky investments. What they stand to lose outweighs the assets of the entire company. The projections are devastating enough to summon the firm’s leadership. In a tense meeting with the calculating Jared Cohen (Simon Baker) and the unflinching Sarah Robertson (Demi Moore), Sam frets over their proposed solutions. Jared proposes that the firm sell all of their troubled assets to unwitting buyers before Wall Street figures out that they are worthless. Sam argues for the value of client relationships and the impossibility of making such a large sale without being caught. The final decision gets kicked up to the big boss, played by Jeremy Irons.
Irons plays the devilishly debonair John Tuld (a not-too-subtle dig at Dick Fuld, the former CEO of Lehman), who makes the final call to dump the firm’s toxic mortgages on the unsuspecting market. “You have to be first, be smarter or cheat,” he advises his lieutenants. Sam, however, still has reservations about this course of action. John prevails on Sam privately, encouraging him to stay optimistic in front of his team. Maintaining their trust in him as a manager and a leader is the only way this hollow plan will work. The final persuasion of Spacey’s character is among the film’s most compelling scenes.
Chandor’s film also examines the causes of the disaster. One character advises another: “In acute situations such as this, what is right can take on multiple interpretations.” Yet the decision to foist worthless products onto the market has little to do with different readings of the numbers and everything to do with questionable motivations. John needs to be ahead even if he has to betray his clients to get there. Sam doubts the firm’s course of action, but convinces his team to sell the toxic assets because, after so many years with the company, a different lifestyle and job is inconceivable. Peter, who predicted the doom, gets the best deal: a promotion. The mid-level workers who had to dump the troubled assets will be rewarded with terminations, even after saving the company.
Watching “Margin Call” I had a vague feeling I had already seen this movie. From the opening scenes in a bustling trading floor, the young financial analysts hunched over computer screens and phones reminded me of Oliver Stone’s “Wall Street.” The professional termination firm that unceremoniously dispatches Stanley Tucci seemed to be channeling George Clooney in “Up in the Air.”
In the end, “Margin Call” too closely resembled “Too Big to Fail,” the Curtis Hanson-directed film that appeared on HBO earlier this year. Both films employ a gang of familiar Hollywood faces to reenact the boardroom conversations, frantic phone calls and backroom deals that accompanied the fall of the U.S. economy. Hanson’s film excelled only when following the character of embattled Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson, played brilliantly by William Hurt. The rest of the cast, with a few exceptions, seemed to be simply reading lines from the op-ed pages.
The pleasures of “Margin Call” come from a range of excellent the performances. No actor dominates the stage, yet each makes a mark on the film quickly and memorably. In some cases, the actors’ charisma fills in the gaps in Chandor’s script. When Jeremy Irons appears screen, we can guess that this reliable cinema villain is going to be a master of financial chicanery. Irons is superb, conveying the urgency and reason behind his devious plan. Spacey also does not disappoint as the company man who, despite being passed over for promotions, retains a certain standing in the company because of his longevity. In one scene, as details of the sale are being worked out, Sam unexpectedly leaves the room saying, "I don't want to hear this.…How do you think I've lasted here this long?” For him, knowing the full truth compromises his ability to sell the lies to himself and his team. Yet this quandary is too big for him to ignore and he must face his moral compromise: the whole economy for his stock portfolio.
“Margin Call” gives those clamoring for change on Wall Street fodder for their recriminations. There are no heroes, no martyrs and no idealistic do-gooders to halt this crash. Still, the film feels rather mechanical and the great actors look a little robotic acting out the demands of the plot. A film critique of Wall Street may be needed, and “Margin Call” may only be the first draft. Hollywood took several stabs at making the “Iraq War Film,” giving us earnest and unimaginative films like “Lions for Lambs” and “Rendition” before Kathryn Bigelow won the Academy Award for “The Hurt Locker.” “Margin Call” does not offer a convincing explanation of what happened in September 2008, but it puts a face to the 1 percent. Apparently, it takes all kinds to ruin the economy.