The 2008 financial meltdown in the United States was a catastrophic event that nearly brought the country back to another Great Depression. If not for the desperate maneuvers, albeit not an effective one from the federal government, the United States could have found itself without its financial security, thus threatening its very stability amongst first world countries. Margin Call isn’t a film that attempts to explain the 2008 crisis, but rather depicts the corruption and manipulation done by a single Wall Street firm, insinuating what many firms may have done that would ultimately lead to financial meltdown. Margin Call is a cautionary tale of how the cancer of one corporation can easily infiltrate and contaminate the healthy market exchange. Additionally, Margin Call strives to emphasize that even within such companies, inherently good people work within their walls but they find themselves with the conflict and pressure to sacrifice the very morality that keep themselves, and their families, afloat.
Margin Call occurs in a 24 hour period beginning with a staff reduction in the Risk Department of a Wall Street firm that remains untitled throughout the entirety of the film. In the process of this mass firing, Eric Dale (Stanley Tucci), the Head of Risk Management and veteran of the firm for 10 years, is fired. In the process of leaving, he hands off a memory stick of his investigative work to Peter Sullivan (Zachary Quinto), a rookie analyst, and warns him to “be careful.” Upon looking over Dale’s work, Sullivan discovers that the firm’s net worth is lower than their actual gains due to their mortgage backed securities. This pulls in Will Emerson (Paul Bettany), the young Head of Training, whose focus on life is entirely upon money. Through him, Sam Rogers (Kevin Spacey), the Head of Sales who is grieving over the loss of his dog, is dragged back to the firm in the middle of the night as well. Once the information of the firm’s lack of financial standing is made known to them, it ignites a panicked night to which Sarah Roberton (Demi Moore), the Chief Risk Management Officer, and CEO John Tuld (Jeremy Irons) strive to establish a solution, a likely fraudulent one, to keep the firm afloat.
Margin Call‘s dependence rests solely upon its script by writer/director J.C. Chandor; a rare dependence for a film to have with contemporary filmmaking. The film’s ability to have its dialogue primarily in the context of financial jargon, yet convey suspense through that very dialogue is tremendous. The script is the film’s main star, even more the cast. Margin Call is a film that emphasizes how corruption is conceived, instead of merely presenting it as a viable option that is immediately accepted. There is a trickle-down effect within the firm of this film, to which one poor judgment is inflicted upon the best of intentions from others. Margin Call strives to portray that having morality within such firms only enable others to see one’s weaknesses. In order to survive within such an establishment, one must sacrifice their ideals and morality. The film is sure to convey that the firm’s situation is the adverse result of those who do not ask questions and only collect their money without any qualms as to how they do it. The film then further showcases that the issue is worsened by the solution made by of those in charge, which is to merely liquidate the bad stocks onto the healthy market. This is what both Lehman Brothers and Goldman Sachs did to the American economy, thus damaging the overall market tremendously.
The morality of this film lies with Kevin Spacey, whose character functions as the voice of reason. He is also established as the sole character with humanity engrained within himself amongst the litany of characters the film introduces the viewer to. Spacey’s acting is impactful by which he conveys caution and the understanding that eventually the bubble the firm is perpetuating itself as being within will eventually burst. Spacey’s Sam Rogers has the clear sense to understand that the bubble has burst during the evening events of this film, to which the solution is an internal evaluation and solution. The character further establishes the reality of how much clout sympathy and humanity achieves amongst the cutthroat firm he works for, to which those sentiments are deemed as weaknesses that allow others to look down upon him. In the very introduction of Sam Rogers, he is in tears over the death of his dog, yet is compelled to bottle his emotions before exiting his office to give his staff a pep talk. This sets up Spacey’s character as the legitimate boss whose sentimental nature is what leads him. Therefore, the events of Margin Call challenge the very nature he embodies. The conflict of the film is not whether the firm will survive in the morning, but whether corruption will outweigh a moral solution.
Margin Call extends beyond the plot, but also lies with the commentary the film makes of its principle characters. The hierarchy of the firm within Margin Call is comprised of individuals not qualified for the very positions of power they occupy. Paul Bettany’s character represents the lower ranks of the firm, to which the sole motivation of the workers is to make money. Yet even this goal is portrayed as being entirely misguided in itself since their purpose to make money is to uphold a lifestyle that is comprised solely of superficial needs. Bettany’s character continually brags of his annual income, even at one point breaking down his expenses and declares, “Yeah, I did spend 76,520 dollars on hookers, booze and dancers. But mainly hookers.” However, he frequently alludes to the reality that the company will eventually implode and he is financially prepared for this. This further insinuates the knowledge that the firm’s financial bubble will eventually burst and their salary goal is to accumulate enough personal revenue before they are eventually fired. Bettany’s character represents the very reality of the situation, to which he isn’t surprised by the night’s events and revelations, but instead is waiting for the inevitable. He ultimately doesn’t care about the company and only has a stake in the adrenaline of making money for himself.
This is placed in contrast to the firm’s higher executives, who function under the guise that their work doesn’t impact anyone. Additionally, they operate with the expectation that their lower ranks will spell out the details of their own company to them. The firm’s CEO, John Tuld (Jeremy Irons), at one instance openly tells Quinto’s character to explain the situation to him “as if he were a small child,” emphasizing the lack of credentials the higher executives, such as himself, possess. “It’s just money; it’s made up,” He tells Spacey’s character at one point, “Pieces of paper on it so we don’t have to kill each other just to get something to eat.” This detached attitude further details the inability for those in charge to see outside of their own survival and justify that a single action will have no genuine effect upon the economy. The concept that money is immaterial is delusional, emphasizing the lack of connection the higher executives have with the common working class.
Incidentally, the film also emphasizes the level of sacrifice one must make to be well-established within a firm, yet still not have a safety net for themselves. The film plot is ironic in that Stanley Tucci’s Eric Dale is the most qualified individual within the firm, yet the film opens with his being fired. Additionally, Tucci portrays his character’s true achievement in life with the construction of a bridge, which is a blatant blue collar job. Tucci’s character is the very representation of legacy within the film and what truly contributes to the average person. The firm marginalizes people while the very idea of a bridge is something that benefits all social classes. Added to this aspect of the film is Demi Moore’s character, whose representation of the cutthroat corporate woman is nothing more than a ruse to integrate herself within a male-dominated environment. She cannot afford to exhibit her femininity because that would reveal weakness or the perception that she isn’t as invested with her job as a male would be. There is an instance within the film that she asks Tucci whether he has any children. Upon his answer, the viewer can very briefly see the envy on her face, to which there is a subtle implication that she had made a decision in the past to not have children in exchange to focus upon her career. The resentment she shows is towards herself and the realization that despite her own sacrifice, her life is irrelevant in the grand scheme of the survival of the firm.
The brilliance of Margin Call is both in how it outlines how firms, such as Lehman Brothers, were able to implode at the onset of the 2008 financial crisis, but also how it portrays the firm hierarchy. Given the lower ranks strictly working for cash in their pockets, the higher executives not being qualified, and those who are genuinely qualified being part of a staff reduction, it is no mystery as to why the moral epicenter of the film, Kevin Spacey, is left with the conflict of abandoning his ideals and being compelled to go with the inevitable path of corruption that the firm is to embark on. This crafts the perfect metaphor with Spacey’s character and his dying dog. The dog is symbolic of his love and compassion, to which once it is gone and buried, it can never be retrieved. To an extent, this is relevant to 2008, to which innocence and trust was betrayed and those two attributes will never be truly granted back to the investment firms by the average American.
Academy Award Nominations:
Best Original Screenplay – J.C. Chandor