“There are three ways to make a living in this business: be first, be smarter, or cheat.” That is the line that is uttered by the C.E.O of the fictitious investment trading firm in Margin Call which is the first full feature film from writer and director J.C. Chandor.
The movie has a host of familiar actors in a small cast including Kevin Spacey (The Usual Suspects, Seven, American Beauty) Paul Bettany (Legion, Iron Man, The Da Vinci Code), Jeremy Irons (The Lion King, The Borgias, Eragon) , Zachary Quinto (Heroes, Star Trek), Demi Moore (G I Jane, A Few Good Men, Striptease), Simon Baker (The Mentalist, Land of the Dead), and Stanley Tucci (Captain America, ER, The Devil Wears Prada) all of whom are employed within the fictitious investment company.
The firm, like many others, is undergoing a wave of job cuts and opens with representatives of the Human Resources department walking through the office and calling in people by name and then asking them to leave with immediate effect. One of these people to be effected by the cuts is Eric Dale (Tucci). He is told that he is to be “let go of” even though he works in the risk management team and not the trading team where most of the staff appear to be from.
As Eric Dale is escorted from the building he says his goodbyes to his former assistants and hands one of them, Peter Sullivan (Quinto), a USB memory stick containing “something that he has been working on, but hasn’t quite finished yet” but to be careful with it.
After the trading for the main US market has closed and everyone is heading out to the bars to celebrate their survival within the firm, Sullivan stays behind to look at the data that is on the memory stick. From here, Sullivan finds he is able to fill in the gaps that Dale was unable to and stumbles across a terrible realization – that if the company continues on its current trading model and the market moves against them by a mere 25% then the company’s debts will outweigh its current value. In English, this means that the business will not be able to pay any of its debts / commitments that it has already agreed to therefore making it insolvent / bankrupt / out of business.
What follows this discovery is a boardroom thriller where a plan of action to save the company is hammered out during a single night with most of the movie taking place between the hours of midnight and 6 am.
Where this movie finds its feet is not in some massive action sequence or in some clearly preposterous idea of a way out, as seen in many Hollywood movies, but in its clear ability to be based within a real world where the audience feels like they are peeking behind the curtains of the investment banking world, as throughout the movie we are shown just what it could have been like being in the boardroom of a major investment bank during an imminent financial collapse.
The movie is filled with financial technical language such as with the demonstration of what the problem actually is with the company and has to be dumbed down a number of times the further that the issue is communicated up the management chain. This culminates in everyone being able to understand the issue as Sullivan, a mere assistant risk analyst (with a background in engineering), looks to explain the issue to the C.E.O, John Tuld (Irons) and the rest of the company’s convened emergency meeting at 4 am.
While watching this movie there is, at times, what feels like a disconnection between the audience and the characters on the screen. This comes from the fact that many of these people feel like they do not interact with the general public as they talk about how they earn multi-million bonuses for a good year and how they would go about spending this £2.2 million over the course of a year.
A further example of this is with one of the main characters, trading floor manager Sam Rogers (Spacey). When Rogers is introduced to the audience, he is seen as cold and disconnected from his work and is more concerned with his dog who is costing him $1,000 a day in vet fees than over the fact that half of his trading staff have just been let go. But it is over the course of the movie that we find beneath the outer shell of the investment banker, he is a real person – a person who is so concerned not only over the future of the company that he has worked for for over 30 years, but for the entire trading floor who he is going to have to ask to commit career suicide in order to complete the impossible task of trying to save the company and trade away the toxic assets of the company before the market realizes what they are up to and moves against them.
This movie has no smart tricks to amaze the audience with; what keeps them going is the hunger to find out just what exactly happens to these people who we have become so invested in. While this movie is not based upon fact but is a very elaborate work of fiction, it is clear that this movie is set around the mid-2008 economic collapse, around the same time that companies such as Lehman Brothers, Merrill Lynch and Freddie Mac all would have faced something of a similar nature
Margin Call has been shown at both the Sundance and Berlin Film Festivals and has won a few independent awards including the Independent Spirit Awards, and both the New York and San Francisco Film Critic Circle Awards. This movie will perhaps go unnoticed at the major awards such as the Oscars, Golden Globes, and BAFTA’s but what counts here is the enjoyment of the movie as a whole, and for me this was a very enjoyable movie. However, I am left wonder just exactly how enjoyable is this movie to someone who is not familiar with the world that these characters operate in?