Movie Review: Margin Call (2011)
WARNING: There are three ways to review a movie: Be first, be smarter, or use SPOILERS.
Let’s talk irony.
“Margin Call” is about the immoral (or at least amoral) actions of a group of executives at a powerful, Goldman-Sachs-like New York investment bank, who realize, during a 36-hour period circa 2008, that if stock market trends continue the losses on their books will be greater than the entire value of their 107-year-old company. So during several hushed, middle-of-the-night meetings they must decide what to do.
The employee who created the program that reveals this gap is risk management executive Eric Dale (Stanley Tucci), but—and here’s the first irony—he was fired, along with 80 percent of his floor, at the beginning of this 36-hour period. He’s been with the company 19 years, but someone taps on his door, and he’s taken to an office where two young women, HR folks, express condolences and lay out a severance package. After it’s done, they nod toward a burly security guard by the door. “This gentleman will take you to your office so you can clean out your office,” one says. Then he’s walked out the building as if he’s a common criminal.
This is the thought that scene is intended to evoke: “Awful!”
This is the thought it evoked in me: “Pikers!”
A month earlier, my domestic partner, Patricia, had been fired from Microsoft after 10 years on the job. She did good work, put in long hours, but her boss, two years ago, slowly began to squeeze her—making impossible demands, holding back on approval for projects and then blaming her for not meeting milestones—until, at her annual review this September, she was let go. That was the injury but here are the insults: 1) She received no severance package; and 2) she was escorted, not back to her office, but to HR, where she was told not to contact anyone at Microsoft except HR. Then she was escorted from the building. A week later, the personal items from her office finally arrived. She didn’t even get to box them up herself. Her personal items included an unopened 10-year anniversary gift/card she’d received from Microsoft last spring. “On your tenth anniversary, we would like to thank you for your incredible commitment to Microsoft,” the card read. It was signed: “Steve Ballmer.”
That’s the big, unintended irony of the opening scene. Hollywood thinks it’s showing us an immoral act from a soulless institution, but the soulless institutions of the world have already shown us much, much worse.
“Margin Call” is a smart, relevant, powerful film that is also curiously isolated. The terms we’re used to hearing about the global financial meltdown—“toxic asserts,” “mortgage derivatives,” “subprime mortgage loans”—are rarely enunciated. The reasons Eric Dale and 80 percent of his floor are let go at the beginning of this 36-hour period are never mentioned. Things just happen. If you didn’t know any better, you’d think the global financial meltdown began here, with this 107-year-old investment bank, rather than with policy decisions dating back to at least 1999 and probably earlier.
The movie is so compact in terms of time and place that I thought it was based upon a play: off-Broadway, I imagined, fall 2009. It’s actually an original screenplay by first-time director J.C. Chandor, who, at times, feels like he’s channeling David Mamet with his blunt, vague dialogue. (First words: “Is that them? ... Are they going to do it right here?”) His characters remind me of characters from a play, too. Will Emerson (Paul Bettany) immediately comes off slick and fierce but that doesn’t mean he’s disingenuous or doesn’t have a moral code of his own. Sam Rogers (Kevin Spacey) is appalled by what he’s asked to do but that doesn’t mean he can’t rally the troops to do that very thing.
It’s a simple story. Eric Dale is fired, Will Emerson commiserates in his way (without outward sympathy), while Peter Sullivan (Zachary Quinto), who worked under Dale, offers him an awkward, heartfelt farewell by the elevator. At the last instant, probably because of this show of heart, Dale gives Sullivan a zip drive. “I was working on something but they didn’t let me finish it,” he says. As the elevator doors close, he adds, “Be careful.”
That night, after his regular work, and while his colleagues are decompressing at a Manhattan bar, he begins to fiddle with the model. He punches in numbers. What they reveal is so awful he phones his friend, Seth (Penn Badgley), to bring in their new boss, Will, who brings in his boss, Sam Rogers, who alerts executives Jared Cohen (Simon Baker) and Sarah Robertson (Demi Moore), the woman responsible for Eric Dale being fired in the first place. When they get the news, they call in the bank’s CEO, John Tuld (Jeremy Irons), who arrives, like a deus ex machina, in a helicopter that lands on the roof. But he’s not a deus ex machina. “The cavalry has arrived,” one man says. But he’s not the cavalry, either.
Chandor is good with moods: the hushed, ominous wait at 2 a.m., which Tuld cuts through with his 3 a.m. arrival and his no-bullshit questions and his ultimate decision to kill rather than be killed, to SURVIVE, as he says, which leads to 4 or 5 a.m. bleariness as you wait out the dawn, and the day, and the only questions that remain: Will we do this thing? Can we do this thing? Eric Dale is searched for (in Brooklyn), Jared Cohen tries to pry Will away from Sam (and fails), and different people have quiet conversations in which philosophies are revealed; but ultimately we’re just waiting to see if the company can survive, and, if it can, what this means.
It’s a Goldman Sachs moment—knowingly selling toxic assets—and Sam rallies the troops to do this, just as he rallied the troops after the mass layoffs the day before. What he said about their fired colleagues on day one, in fact, could apply to the toxic assets at the end of day two: “Now they’re gone. They’re not to be thought of again ... You are all survivors.”
It’s merciless but true. The company takes what would’ve killed it and lets it loose in the economic ecosystem, where, even in diluted form, it will kill others. Maybe you.
As they do this, they affix blame elsewhere. Here’s John Tuld to Sam:
You and I can't control it, or stop it, or even slow it, or even ever-so-slightly alter it. We just react. And we make a lot money if we get it right and we get left by the side of the road if we get it wrong.
Here’s Will Emerson to Seth on the drive back from Brooklyn:
The only reason that [most people] get to continue living like kings is cause we got our fingers on the scales in their favor. I take my hand off and then the whole world gets really fuckin’ fair really fuckin’ quickly and nobody actually wants that. They say they do but they don’t. They want what we have to give them but they also want to, you know, play innocent and pretend they have know idea where it came from. Well, that’s more hypocrisy than I'm willing to swallow. So fuck ’em. Fuck normal people.
Others can’t affix blame elsewhere. At the end of the day, Sam, the good soldier, looks weaker from the purging and tells Tuld he wants out. He says he’s tired of the game. He says he should’ve gone into ditch digging. How far have we fallen when Kevin Spacey plays our moral exemplar?
Ditch digging, ironically, is where we last see him: digging a hole in the front yard of the home he used to share with his ex-wife, to bury their old dog, who died of a tumor as Sam was rallying the troops. It’s one of the few moments in the movie where we’re not in a corporate high-rise so it feels a bit out of place. It’s dirt and grass rather than steel and glass. And yet it feels exactly right. It feels like the last few years. Something beloved is being buried in a place where we no longer live.