Margin Call

March 31, 2012
Screen shot 2012-05-07 at 3.27.31 PM

Margin Call is a small drama about a very big topic: the ongoing exercise in wealth creation and global domination that is Wall Street. It has a fine ensemble cast and the compact atmosphere of a chamber opera played out during one long night in a Manhattan office block. For writer-director, J.C.Chandor, who had previously worked only on advertisements and documentaries, it is an auspicious entry into the world of feature films.

Although all the action occurs within one firm, Margin Call has an apocalyptic atmosphere. It is reminiscent of those end-of-the-world movies in which a team of scientists sit up all night trying to work out ways to deflect the comet that is about to hit planet earth, or defeat the menacing aliens. The significant difference is that the enemy is the firm itself: a toxic, all-devouring entity that has swallowed too many packaged derivatives, curdling with subprime mortgages. In the race to make gargantuan sums of money, the company has overstretched itself and is balanced on the brink of disaster.

We have already learned, from documentaries such as Inside Job and books such as Michael Lewis’s The Big Short, that Wall Street at the time of the 2009 Global Financial Crisis, was an alternative universe where hundreds of millions of dollars were gambled on a daily basis. Bankers creamed profits from the failure of financial products they had recently sold to their clients. Descriptions range from “surreal” to “one giant Ponzi scheme”. Michael Lewis quotes one player who became convinced, in 2007, “that the entire financial system had lost its mind”.

We have heard about the vast sums expended on hookers and cocaine; the luxury mansions and private planes; the thousands of lobbyists employed to butter up the politicians. Only last week The New York Times revealed that Goldman Sachs still refers to its clients as “muppets”. With such lurid material at hs fingertips it is remarkable that J.C.Chandor has made his characters seem like human beings rather than souped-up androids. Oliver Stone did not manage the feat half so well in Wall Street (1987), the original Hollywood high finance potboiler.

Nevertheless, Margin Call does not paint a flattering picture of the American finance sector. It begins with about half the office being sacked in a single day, as the crisis begins to bite. Before he is escorted out the door, analyst Eric Dale (Stanley Tucci) throws a data stick to his young protégé Peter Sullivan (Zachary Quinto), telling him to look at it but to “be careful”.

When Peter works his way through Eric’s data he realises he has uncovered the formula for Armageddon. Within a few hours executives are meeting in the dead of night to try and find a way out. It is no surprise that the higher one rises in the corporate hierarchy the more ruthless and unpleasant the personalities. Jared Cohen (Simon Baker) is completely affect-free, as is Sarah Robinson (Demi Moore), at least until she is made the official scapegoat. But the arch sociopath is undoubtedly CEO, John Tuld (Jeremy Irons), who reveals in his every utterance that the rest of the world plays no part in his calculations.

Only Kevin Spacey, as Sam Rogers, a veteran who has spent 34 years in the firm, and to a certain extent, his underling, Will Emerson (Paul Bettany), show lingering traces of loyalty. This does not mean they will refuse to engineer the big sell-off that is planned for the following morning. To sell is to survive, even at the cost of most of the remaining jobs and the reputation of the firm.

One of the most fascinating aspects of Margin Call is its close resemblance to real firms and personalities. One can barely look at the Jeremy Irons character without thinking of the former Lehman Brothers CEO, Richard Fuld. The name “Tuld” is allegedly a cross between “Fuld” and “Thain”, the latter being John Thain, former head of Merill-Lynch. Fuld is an obvious role model, being ranked No.1 in Condé Nast Portfolio’s 2009 list of Worst American CEOs of All Time.

To those who have been burned by the actions of the Wall Street bankers, most of whom are back earning their massive bonuses, Margin Call may seem a very lenient portrayal of the events of 2009. It suggests there were a few good people caught up in the madness of the moment, and reveals the pressures under which decisions were made. What it doesn’t show is the catastrophe that will unfold at the end of the film. Chandor doesn’t tell us about the hundreds of thousands of jobs lost, the houses repossessed, the savings and pensions destroyed. We see the spark, but not the conflagration. For the full scope of the disaster, fiction is not adequate to the task.

Published by the Australian Financial Review, March 31, 2012

Margin Call, USA,  Rated MA, 107 minutes