If you haven’t already satiated yourself with documentaries about the inner workings of the 2008 financial meltdown, J.C. Chandor’s film might be of interest to you. “Margin Call” dramatizes the very beginning of the crash by following the efforts of one Wall Street investment firm to quickly sell off the risky instruments it’s suddenly discovered are threatening its very viability to unsuspecting purchasers, thereby saving itself at the expense of its customers. And on its own terms it’s a reasonably compelling narrative, enlivened by a strong cast. But it also wants to engender sympathy for some of the players in the financial debacle from which a great many people are still suffering. And that’s a pretty repellent notion.
The picture begins at the unnamed firm during one of its periodic down-sizings. Among those unceremoniously let go is Eric Dale (Stanley Tucci), an upper-level man in Risk Management, who hands off an unfinished but potentially explosive project he’s been working on to his protégé Peter Sullivan (Zachary Quinto). The brilliant young man punches in a few more equations and determines that the company’s risk-benefits paradigm is seriously flawed, and that over the past couple of weeks its holdings in dangerous devices like mortgage derivatives have actually declined to the point where the probable losses exceed the total value of the firm.
His discovery leads to an all-night barnstorming session, first involving Sullivan, his ambitious office pal Seth Bregman (Penn Badgley) and their new boss Will Emerson (Paul Bettany), and then their superiors—general manager Sam Rogers (Kevin Spacey), COO Jared Cohen (Simon Baker), chief risk officer Sarah Robertson (Demi Moore) and ultimately CEO John Tuld (Jeremy Irons). (Amusingly, Assif Mandvi of “The Daily Show” also shows up briefly as the firm’s chief lawyer.) The ultimate decision is to execute an emergency dump of all the securities on the market the following day, thereby rescuing the firm by sticking long-time clients with soon-to-be worthless paper.
Some of the participants here—particularly Spacey’s Rogers—are ambivalent about the plan. But even his concern seems to have more to do with the fact that sticking customers with junk securities will ruin the firm’s future sales prospects. And when it comes to emotion, he seems to feel greater grief for his dying dog than for the buyers whose lives will be ruined in tomorrow’s fire sale. As for the other major players, both Tucci’s Dale and Moore’s Robertson seem to despair less over the catastrophe about to happen that over their own firings—though they’re with handsome severance packages. To be sure, Tucci is given one eloquent speech in which he bemoans the fact that he exchanged a “real” engineering job—building useful stuff like bridges—for his lucrative post in the financial industry. But far more characteristic is Tuld’s ultimate self-justification to Rogers, which has to do with the ultimate fact of capitalism, which is that there will always be winners and losers and that the sole goal should be coming out on top, whoever might be harmed in the process.
Tuld’s speech is obviously intended as the executive-suite version of Alec Baldwin’s stem-winding address to the salesmen in “Glengarry Glen Ross.” And even though Chandor is no Mamet, Irons—always perfect at playing an amoral reptile—delivers the words with delicious glee. But still we’re asked to empathize with these movers and shakers, or at least of them who still have scruples, even if in the end they don’t act on them, and maybe even root for them to pull off their dirty scheme. This despite the fact that Tucci’s Dale is right: these are people who produce nothing but profit for themselves. So Bettany’s Emerson talks freely about how he makes millions a year and fritters it away, while Badgley’s Bregman—whom we’ve seen doing nothing but pushing numbers around on a computer screen and guzzling expensive alcohol—is given a scene weeping in a restroom stall over the prospect of losing his quarter-million a year gig.
“Margin Call” thus raises troubling questions about the perspective it takes on the economic disaster it’s chronicling, though in very simplified fashion. Nonetheless as pure drama, without reference to the wider moral issues it skirts, it’s compellingly structured and played by an expert ensemble working at the top of their game. But remember that while it’s enjoyable as corporate melodrama, there are wider ramifications to what’s portrayed as happening as these spiffy conference rooms; and the moral implications of these the film ignores.