“Margin Call” can be categorized as disaster movie. The people in the film have overlooked the risk which has existed from the very beginning, and now they face a grim disaster on the horizon which is soon going to engulf not only them but also the whole world outside. For their survival, they must do something – regardless of whether they like it or not.
Though the movie is entirely a fiction, the disaster not directly shown in the film is not a fiction at all. Thanks to the irresponsible and risky speculations by the big financial companies of Wall Street during the 2000s, the global economy was eventually hit hard by the huge financial crisis in 2008, and that resulted in the massive loss of money and jobs around the world which is still affecting our reality.
The movie mainly focuses on the two long days of 2008 at one of big financial companies in New York, which is probably based on that notorious Lehman Brothers Holdings Inc. The heat in their market is now starting to decrease, so the executives of the company choose a drastic measure for keeping their company intact. Several people suddenly come into the office, and many employees are summoned one by one, and the people in the building all know what’s going on around them.
One of the fired people is Eric Dale(Stanley Tucci), a senior member of the risk management department. Although he is working on something important, he is promptly cut off from the company along with an adequate severance package, so he hands his data to one of the junior employees in the company right after he works out of his office. Peter Sullivan(Zachary Quinto) does not grasp the meaning behind what Dale tells him when he received a USB card, but, as he checks Dale’s data after office hour, a scary truth dawns on him; having been mired in very profitable but highly risky investments for years, the company is literally on the verge of bankruptcy, and its debts turn out to be far bigger than its assets.
We see how the emergent meeting is quickly prepared and held while this dire news is spread around few high-ranking employees and the executives and board members of the company. Sullivan tells what he has discovered to his co-worker Seth Bregman(Penn Badgley), who brings in their boss Will Emerson(Paul Bettany), who then calls his boss Sam Rogers(Kevin Spacey). Two executives, Jared Cohen(Simon Baker) and Sarah Robertson(Demi Moore), and others immediately come to the meeting, and, finally, John Tuld(Jeremy Irons), the CEO of the company, arrives to decide what they will do for getting out of this imminent disaster with minimal damages before others discover.
The movie mostly consists of the long conversation scenes between characters in the offices, but the director/writer J.C. Chandor, who was Oscar-nominated for his screenplay early in this year, made an engaging drama about desperate people facing a difficult situation with no clean solution available to them. You may not understand every word they say, but the pressure and panic among them feel as palpable as the crisis which is about to come upon them; unless they do something, they will be just swept along with others, and they certainly do not want that happen.
What is ultimately decided in the meeting and subsequently executed can be called a “fair trade”, but, just like the Wall Street people did before the crisis in 2008, they virtually sell their worthless assets to their clients even though they are well aware of that they discharge toxic garbage into the stock market. Some of them, including Rogers, concern about its possible consequence which will last for years, but Tuld does not mind about that. He will survive by any means necessary, and the market will come back to normalcy for him and other ‘winners’ just like it has many times in the financial history, and they will always be the ones who get the money no matter what happens to others. You probably remember that the executives in Wall Street responsible for the crisis managed to get away with what they had done while getting more money as their companies were sinking to the bottom like Titanic.
The movie has a wonderful ensemble presenting us a group of various people occupying their respective positions in the spectrum of morality/ethics of their business world. As the gray moral center of the story, Kevin Spacey shines especially when he pushes his men to do the job he does not privately approve of; he knows it is a wrong thing to do, but he accepts that it will be done regardless of whether he will do it or not. Paul Bettany is a cynical but caring man in love/hate relationship with his lucrative occupation, and Stanley Tucci has a small nice scene later in the story when his character talks about when he was more helpful to the society in his opinion. Simon Baker and Demi Moore are also good as the executives struggling to find a way to survive in their crisis, and, as an arrogant CEO, Jeremy Irons is fun to watch in his juiciest role in recent years. He has a very amusing line when Sullivan tries to explain the situation to Tuld, and that tells a lot about his character and his occupation: “Maybe you could tell me what is going on. And please, speak as you might to a young child. Or a golden retriever. It wasn’t brains that brought me here; I assure you that.”
“Margin Call” is a smart and compelling drama which tells a lot about the recent global financial crisis through its fiction just like the Oscar-winning documentary “Inside Job”(2010) did through its facts and data. Though the consequence of the characters’ decision is not shown in the movie, we all know what will happen after their ‘fire sale’, and we also know that it may happen again sooner or later because the people in Wall Street do not seem to learn much from their recent crisis. Well, as the movie bitingly points out at one point, neither do we.