The film’s title comes from a stock market term referring to a demand for money when something bought with borrowed funds has ruinously decreased in value, which pretty much describes the crux of the situation the firm finds itself in. “Margin Call” has a fondness for business jargon in its dialogue.
Margin Call takes place at a fictional bank in the early days of the financial crisis. The bank sees the writing on the wall, and its CEO John Tuld (Jeremy Irons) makes the decision to dump a ton of MBS onto the laps of customers, a move that may save the bank’s balance sheet but potentially ruin its reputation among clients (not to mention ruin the reputation of traders who have to sweet talk clients into buying into the firesale).
The film explores the moral dimension of high finance: Sam Rogers (Spacey), the longtime head of the fixed-income trading floor, wrestles with the ethics of Tuld’s move, and wonders whether he should’ve just gone into ditch-digging. An up-and-coming young risk analyst with a background in physics tries to believe that the whole thing is more than mere gambling.
It’s all good stuff, and well-acted.
But ultimately, it’s just too real to be likable for most people. Rogers actually uses lines like “unwind our fixed-income MBS book.” The characters don’t get into shouting matches: They have serious discussions where they go over numbers at big boardroom tables. Traders talk to clients and use phrases like “offloading risk.” And they even talk about Value At-Risk. Also: There are Bloomberg terminals galore in the movie.
“Margin Call” is one of the strongest American films of the year and easily the best Wall Street movie ever made. It’s about corporate manners—the protocols of hierarchy, the rituals of power, and, most of all, the difficulty of confronting flagrant habits of speculation with truth. That moment is avoided until it’s absolutely necessary, at which point communication among the responsible parties becomes exceptionally nasty. The young writer-director, J. C. Chandor, has made documentaries and commercials, but he’s never had a script produced before, and this is his first feature as a director. Chandor’s only obvious qualification is that his father spent forty years at Merrill Lynch, which, like Bear Stearns and Lehman Brothers, destroyed itself with an excess of mortgage-backed securities and finally, in 2008, subsided, at a bargain rate, into the arms of a wealthier firm. Chandor is a beginner, but, to my ears, the terse, generally understated, yet sometimes barbarously rude language feels exactly right. I would guess that he has studied David Mamet’s work, digesting the dramatic value of repetition and silence in, say, “Glengarry Glen Ross,” along with the play’s stunned outrage and the characters’ strangely displaced, almost disembodied reactions as some appalling reality swings into view.
Chandor’s prickly script attracted a talented cast. At the company, Sullivan’s findings quickly work their way upward: first, to his immediate superior, Will Emerson (Paul Bettany), a cocky, cynical, free-spending pit boss with a streak of decency; then to the longtime head of trading, Sam Rogers (Kevin Spacey), a lonely man who believes that the company does some good in the world and finds himself grieving excessively over his dog, who is dying of cancer (a decent enough symbol); then to the head of risk, Sarah Robertson (Demi Moore), who warned of danger but still has to take the fall; then to their boss, Jared Cohen (Simon Baker), a severely controlled corporate snake; and then, at last, to the C.E.O., John Tuld (Jeremy Irons). Tuld sweeps in by helicopter, assembles everyone in a conference room at 2 A.M., and, with debonair flourishes, devises a desperate strategy: dump the “greatest pile of odiferous excrement in the history of capitalism” the next day; sell all of it, at discounted rates, in a few hours, before word gets around to buyers that the paper is nearly worthless. There are a few such group meetings in “Margin Call,” but most of the scenes play out with just two or three characters bullying or appeasing one another. (Is this guy my ally? Will I survive this mess?) Chandor has worked out what all these people think of one another while keeping the drama steadily moving forward—no easy job—and if there’s a false note or an overwrought scene in “Margin Call” I couldn’t find it. Chandor has just enough camera technique to do what he needs to do. In this largely indoor movie, the city looming outside is a palpable presence; the camera, quiet and relentless in moments of confrontation, tracks silently at night through the empty trading floor, a ghost invading a once healthy company