Margin Call (2011) Review

The financial nightmare continues to unfold, and the citizens of the world are again being played for chumps. This week, Bank of America moved $75 trillion worth of bad debt into a federally insured public account, thus putting taxpayers on the hook for the whole amount. This kind of fraud of private debt at public expense has been dumped on citizens of the world since 2008, under corrupt banking and political institutions. Margin Call is a fictionalized account of the real events of 2008, centering on the drama amongst derivatives traders at a financial firm when they discover they hold hundreds of billions of dollars in worthless assets that threaten to bring down the company.  Margin Call is a bleak assessment of the moral relativism of our financial elites, and a captivating drama of men and women driven to pin their sins on any sucker that will buy them.

It is already a dark day at the investment firm when multiple employees are called into the conference room for an assembly line downsizing. Sam Rogers (Kevin Spacey), the trading floor boss, gives a motivational speech to reassure the remaining workers. Eric (Stanly Tucci) – the head of Risk Management, is in the middle of an epiphany when he is suddenly fired. On the way out, Eric hands his young protégé Peter (Zachary Quinto) a flash drive, telling him to examine it and “be careful.” Curious and razor-sharp, Peter stays late to examine the numbers…and sees impending doom. It’s not long before he calls his young peer Seth (Penn Badgely) and his new boss Will (Paul Bettany) back to the office to break the bad news: The investment firm owes much more than the entire company is worth, and the game is about to get very ugly.

The film escalates as more important players arrive in the dead of night to quell the problem. First the higher-ups, Jared Cohen (Simon Baker) and Sarah Robertson (Demi Moore), and then the big man himself, owner John Tuld (a vampiric Jeremy Irons). The “solution” they come up with isn’t nearly as remarkable as the moral acrobatics each character performs in order to comply. They are panicking on a sinking ship, and even the most “ethical” ones are out to save their own necks.

The reactions among them are as unique their stock portfolios. These are incredible performances. Sam castigates his boss for not listening to what he warned them about years ago. Though convinced he is a good man who is completely disgusted, he won’t abandon his post. Jared and Sarah heatedly argue in an elevator about which one gets blamed for the firm, ignoring the working class Latina janitor between them. John Tuld emotionlessly insists that it’s just a game, and this situation is no different than the crashes of 1637, 1799, 1929, or 1987. Peter treats the situation as a mathematical problem, focused in his new role as the smart prophet. And poor young Seth, not quite grasping the bigger picture, keeps asking “how much money did that guy make last year?”

Outside of John Tuld, it is Peter’s new boss Will that remains the most morally unchallenged. In his cool performance, he does not question his direction, nor flinch at the prospect of unloading worthless assets and ruining the lives of millions. Yet he is strangely likeable and matter of fact. Early in the film when others are getting fired, he tells Peter not to look. And this is how he operates: Put blinders on, march forward, and make sure you can cover the tab for the 75K a year you pay for in hookers.

They are certainly not all sociopaths, but the collusion amongst these morally compromised men creates a sociopathic result. To them, it is the numbers that are real, and the 99% of the world citizenry that are the abstractions. All they know how to do is move the money around.  And if there are no consequences to the behavior, is it any wonder they have learned nothing, and the 99% are revolting? Margin Call is the masterpiece preamble to a greater tragedy, for the real traders of the world have not averted their comeuppance, merely postponed it.