Judge Clark Douglas lost everything in the 2008 economic crisis. He was planning to spend that $20 on pizza.
Be first. Be smarter. Or cheat.
"These people have no idea what's about to happen."
Facts of the Case
As our story begins, risk management analyst Eric Dale (Stanley Tucci, The Devil Wears Prada) is being fired from a large investment bank. Before Eric exits, he hands off a project he had been working on to junior employee Peter Sullivan (Zachary Quinto, Star Trek). Peter works late that night, leading him to a horrifying realization: trading will soon exceed the historical volatility levels the firm uses to calculate risk, meaning the firm is on the brink of suffering a loss larger than the entire market value of the company. In other words: they're screwed. Peter passes this information on to his boss Will Emerson (Paul Bettany, A Beautiful Mind), who passes it on to head of sales Sam Rogers (Kevin Spacey, American Beauty), who passes it on to head of securities Jared Cohen (Simon Baker, The Mentalist) and head of risk Sarah Robertson (Demi Moore, G.I. Jane), who finally pass it on to CEO John Tuld (Jeremy Irons, The Mission). Tuld quickly makes a decision: the firm must sell the majority of their assets before the rest of the market realizes what's happening. Sam is appalled by this unethical suggestion and recognizes the move could start a domino effect of a broader economic collapse, but John strongly urges him to get with the plan for the sake of saving the company.
I was fully expecting Margin Call to feel very much like Curtis Hanson's fine docudrama Too Big to Fail; a star-studded portrait of the 2008 financial crisis which used familiar faces as a way to help us keep up as it unleashed a torrent of information about how things went down. However, Margin Call turns out to be something considerably more intimate in scope, as it narrows the focus to the inner workings of a single investment bank (largely modeled on Lehman Brothers) and spends more time contemplating ethics and the American way of life than it does on number-crunching. This is a bleak, harrowing film; an upscale modern noir which potently demonstrates how an entire nation's fate can be shaped by a group of weary businessmen sitting around a table.
Sam Rogers forms the film's moral center. He is a man who has certainly been involved in his share of questionable business decisions over the course of his career; the same could undoubtedly be said of anyone who was in a position of power at a 21st century investment bank in 2008. However, he recognizes the decision his company is about to make is a step beyond anything they've done before, and can't shake the larger implications no matter how much he tries. Sam's co-workers react to his assertions about ethics and what might happen to the ordinary people of America the same way Will reacts when Sam shares that his dog is dying: with confused discomfort. It's clear these people aren't exactly in tune with the realities of life; many of them are workaholics who spend those occasional free moments enjoying their lavish homes, fancy sports cars, high-class hookers, and expensive restaurants. In their business, they see the world in terms of profit and loss. Something like right and wrong is considerably less easy to define and much more troubling to contemplate.
However, part of what makes Margin Call is so effective is its ability to underline the wounded humanity of these businessmen we've come to regard as villains. It effectively demonstrates the manner in which the mighty power of greed and the even mightier power of need can compromise good people and further embolden bad people. In one of the film's most potent scenes, Tuld dismisses Sam's cries of protests with a speech of level-headed cynicism. "It's just the same thing over and over; we can't help ourselves. And you and I can't control it, or stop it, or even slow it. Or even ever-so-slightly alter it. We just react," he insists.
This is a film which contains a number of caustic truths that will make it something of a sobering experience for many viewers. Yes, it is outraged at the fat cats on Wall Street who got us into this economic mess. But it's also a reminder that we the people are responsible for an equally large portion of the blame, a point-of-view best expressed by the embittered Will Emerson: "If you really wanna do this with your life, you have to believe you're necessary. People wanna live like this in their cars and their big @#$%!*& houses they can't even pay for, then you're necessary. The only reason that they all get to continue living like kings is 'cause we got our fingers on the scale in their favor. I take my hand off and then the whole world gets really $#@$&@# fair really !@&*#!# 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 wanna, you know, play innocent and pretend they have no idea where it came from. Well, that's more hypocrisy than I'm willing to swallow, so #%^@ 'em. #$&! normal people."
Margin Call benefits immensely from having a very talented cast at its disposal, and actually puts most of its players to rather good use. Stanley Tucci is movingly distraught in a pair of extended scenes as the recently-ousted risk management analyst, Zachary Quinto brings an understated intelligence to his key role, and Paul Bettany works his way from amiable to fuming in persuasive fashion. Spacey has never seemed as convincingly broken as he does in this film, his quiet dignity gently slippining into self-loathing. Demi Moore and Simon Baker are strong as two people who have seemingly lost touch with their conscience, and Jeremy Irons steals every scene he appears in as the no-nonsense, calculating, merciless CEO. This is a true ensemble piece, with the movie's center of gravity constantly shifting from player to player as the story proceeds.
Margin Call (Blu-ray) offers a crisp, clean 1.78:1/1080p high definition transfer. The early scenes have the muted, blue/white/gray/black office building palette you would expect from a film like this, but it gets increasingly shadowy and visually arresting during the nighttime scenes (a large portion of the film takes place during the wee hours of the morning). Detail is strong throughout and flesh tones are warm and natural. The DTS-HD 5.1 Master Audio is quite low-key, but effective. This is very much a dialogue-driven film, and all of that sounds clean enough. The arrival of some helicopters at a few points will give your speakers something to do, but that's about it. Supplements include a dry but informative commentary with director J.C. Chandor and producer Neal Dodson, an EPK-style featurette called "Revolving Door: Making Margin Call" (6 minutes), some deleted scenes, a brief gag reel and a photo gallery.
Margin Call is an arresting, informative, and effectively bleak piece of filmmaking featuring fine performances from its ensemble cast. It's accessible even to those who don't know an asset from a portfolio, and at this point ranks as the most rewarding look at a particularly unpleasant chapter in our economic history.
Give us your feedback!
What's "fair"? Whether positive or negative, our reviews should be unbiased, informative, and critique the material on its own merits.
Scales of Justice
Review content copyright © 2011 Clark Douglas; Site design and review layout copyright © 2015 Verdict Partners LLC. All rights reserved.