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Margin Call: Wall Street Greed Machine

By Brock Wilbur · October 24, 2011

I’ve long suspected that the financial meltdown was a result of mad scientists.

Specifically, how we stopped paying scientists, and most other careers, a comparable sum to even the lowest ranking financial trader. As the costs of college and graduate school have risen over the years, it’s made more sense to enter the economic field with its guaranteed return on investment, instead of something less stable. Like Bio-Engineering. Or rocket science. Before this shift, it was just the kids of day traders going into the family business; never having anything to prove, never having to work too hard. In the last few decades, we’ve shifted to a market run on high-tech processing and investment theorems indistinguishable from rocket science. People from all walks of life, starved and in debt, entered into the most coat-throat business in the world and brought with them a new redefinition of “greed”. Not greed born of societal standing, but greed born of need. These were no longer hand-shake deals amongst contemporaries, but cold data streaming through algebraic filters—cut throat and robotic.

The theory has plenty of holes, but this film immediately validated me by casting Zachary Quinto in the lead, as a 28-year old risk analyst, who’d actually majored in jet propulsion but chose investment banking for the greatly inflated paycheck. Rocket scientist. Check and mate.

Director J.C. Chandor’s Margin Call picks up where Up In The Air leaves off: slash and burn lay-offs sporting a professional (if not friendly) demeanor, and promises of a better tomorrow. One of the biggest banks on Wall Street is firing 80% of its staff in a single day. The first out the door is Eric Dale (Stanley Tucci), the head of Risk Analysis for the firm. Due to his sensitive position, he’s immediately escorted out by security with his phone disabled, after thirty-plus years of service. On the way to the elevator, two of his underlings get a chance to say goodbye. Seth Bregman (Gossip Girl’s Penn Badgley) can only feign interest in Dale’s plight, while probing for information on his own future. Peter Sullivan (the aforementioned Quinto) is slightly more affable, and Dale returns the favor by handing him a small flash drive with a project he’d been working on. “Be careful,” he warns.

Quinto stays late after work and solves the missing information in Dale’s spreadsheets, showing that the company is in danger of not only going under, but possibly taking the entire market with it. And this may have already happened. Theoretically.

What follows is a secret all-nighter amongst Bergman and Sullivan, their boss (Paul Bettany), his boss (Kevin Spacey), his board of directors (Simon Baker, Demi Moore, Aasif Mandvi) and the CEO (Jeremy Irons). Alternating between tense group scenes and smaller personal moments, by sunrise each pawn is left wondering how they’ll fair in the next day’s chess game, regardless of the fact that their actions will light fire to the playing board.

It’s a tricky subject matter, or more specifically, point of view to adapt. Much has been made of the fact J.C. Chandor’s father was a top-executive in similar firms, and he tries to humanize the top players at every turn. Spacey in particular is portrayed as a father-like character, trying to be honest and true, despite the inevitable internal betrayal that infinite financial backing guarantees. But Chandor never goes too far, in an attempt to make any particular player likable or unlikable, and it shows a welcome respect for the audience. For a room full of the most “evil” people of our time, no one comes close to mustache-twirling evil. They are business men, and this is their job. Even the destruction of the American financial markets for untold years can still be performed, in one eight hour period, professionally, and in a method that even inspires pride amongst peers.

It’s a lot like watching Downfall, a film from the Nazi’s point of view, and you understand they had families and jobs and responsibilities to take pride in, but you don’t feel the slightest twinge of regret when they all get machine-gunned to death. The problem here is that no one gets machine-gunned. No one leaps from the top of the building, disgusted in the shadow of the man he’s become. Everyone here loses, but on Wall Street losing means a severance package of comparable size to the GDP of a small Central American nation. In fact, the biggest losers wind up being those who worked hard enough to become indispensible, guaranteeing that they have to keep working.

At almost two hours in runtime, Margin Call gives its actors room to breathe. Despite the ticking clock, nothing is ever rushed. Which is fine, because a film like this isn’t sold on special effects. It’s decidedly an actors’ film, sold on Kevin Spacey’s honest portrayal of hard work gone wrong, and on Jeremy Irons returning to Wall Street for the first time since trying to kill John McClane. Quinto gets more screen time than anyone else, but his nervous number-cruncher is never as much fun to watch as the people he’s trapped with. Badgley’s performance gets the furthest into stereotype territory, as the living embodiment of every twenty-three year old party animal making a quarter-million dollars a year on Wall Street, but being utterly unaware of the world around him. Both his character and Bettany’s enter into strangely unprovoked audience baiting, where they suddenly compare their salaries or discuss spending $2.5 million in a year without knowing how. These moments never ring true, but certainly frame the types of people the film is asking you to care about. Like if the Nazis in Downfall off-handedly began comparing body counts. Again, at least with the Nazis you knew how it would end. 

Also, no one above the age of twenty-eight knows anything about financial data. This seemed like a poor plot device in the beginning, forcing Quinto to explain multiple times what his findings meant, why it was troubling, and even how the bank operated. But with each new explanation, Quinto has to dumb down even further, as he climbs farther away from people like himself, who do the actual work. By the time he reaches Irons, he’s instructed to explain it “as you would to a child or a golden retriever. It wasn’t brains that got me here.” And in doing so reveals exactly why we’ve reached this point.

It’s a clinical film. There are monologues clearly meant to stretch for Glengarry Glen Ross type theatrical business-speak, but a majority of the time is spent in small, serious and surface conversations. It makes for slow pacing but never breaks the reality of the world. Some minor complaints aside, it’s a big name cast doing a socially relevant film that will find new ways of shocking you with information you already know, while placing you in the shoes of the enemy and daring you to cast the first stone. It could be in defense of his father that led Chandor to show even the most stalwart among us as succumbing to an inevitable number, but it’s also the truth.