The film announces its purpose and draws you in with the opening scene. At the offices of a major investment bank, an HR-led purge of trading floor staff is under way. One of the senior managers to be ‘let go’ is Stanley Tucci – and we follow him as he puts his things into a cardboard box and leaves the office.
As Tucci, still in shock, progresses past the intrigued stares and hushed speculations of his former colleagues, the background noises fade and all we hear is the swish and crunch of his shoes on the carpet. This is personal. It’s about you. It’s about me.
First-time director, J C Chandor, who has also written the fine script, is telling a story about the financial crisis 0f 2008 which to me, at least, strongly parallels what happened at Lehman Brothers in New York at that time. But as the events unfold over a day or so, we get to know the principal characters – what drives them, what matters to them and, without judgement, how they behave.
Before Tucci leaves, he gives a junior in his department, Zachary Quinto, a USB memory stick which contains data for an unfinished project he had been developing. He tells Quinto to ‘be careful’. Quinto goes to work immediately on the project and quickly discovers that the potential trading debts in mortgage backed securities could exceed the company’s capital value.
What follows is a series of meetings involving Quinto, Head of Trading, Kevin Spacey, his protegé, Paul Bettany, Risk Management Head, Demi Moore, Division Head, Simon Baker and CEO, Jeremy Irons. (It’s interesting to note that the Irons character’s name is John Tuld and Lehman’s former CEO was Richard Fuld. Draw your own conclusions)
Spacey is a long-serving company man who has seen this all before. He urges caution as Irons prepares to sell off the worthless assets. ‘Being first out the door isn’t panicking’, he tells Spacey. And as the need for resolution grows more urgent through the night, both of these superb actors strip away the layers to reveal their essential qualities. Irons is a fully evolved predator, urbane but deadly, as Moore and most of the trading floor are persuaded to sacrifice themselves in return for massive bonuses.. Spacey has compassion, mostly for himself, and when called upon to declare his intentions by Irons – who says he can stay on – agrees to the sackings and fire sale of stock – ‘not because of your pretty speech – but because I need the money.’
What Margin Call achieves in its portrayal of yet another crisis in the financial sector, is the sense of an organically evolved sector credo – a way of thinking that drives through more quotidian, personal considerations such as greed and ambition. These are the tools that serve to ensure the survival of the fittest and the right to trade commodities at any cost. As Irons casually informs Spacey; ‘Money is just a piece of paper with pictures on it’
Chandor has made a fine film. He has laid bare the ethos of the Wall Street magnates whose actions gave rise to the financial crisis that put thousands out of work, saw many Americans walk away from their homes and ultimately spawned the Occupy Wall Street movement. That he has done so without being overtly judgemental is a testament not only to his script and direction but also to his excellent cast who lend credibility to their characters and the fiscally violent world that they inhabit.