Thursday, 15 December 2011

Margin Call

From the opening scene in a major Wall Street investment firm to the digging-a-grave-on-the-front-lawn scene that ends this unique film, the word that kept occurring to me was “fascinating”, in the best sense of the word. Margin Call is endlessly fascinating, providing an inside (albeit fictitious) view of the mortgage speculation crisis unfolding during one fateful night (presumably in 2008). Margin Call features a splendid ensemble cast, led by Kevin Spacey (playing Sam Rogers) in his best role since American Beauty (though I had to get over his similar, yet also very different and very inferior, role in Horrible Bosses). Margin Call feels like a play at points, probably because it is so deeply layered, the dialogue is so intelligent and real and it makes no attempt to talk down to the viewers. It certainly does not feel like Hollywood (this is a very good thing).

Margin Call was written and directed by J.C. Chandor. Amazingly, this is his first film. With a small budget, Chandor uses his excellent cast to both humanize the people who precipitated the crisis and show the dehumanizing impact of money. Spacey’s Sam is a case in point. By showing us how devastated Sam is by the death of his dog and how uncomfortable he is with what his superiors are proposing, we are invited to sympathize with him. But we also know that he has risen to his extremely well-paid (millions a year) position through constant compromise and stepping over those who callously get the axe so the firm can make a bigger profit at any given moment.

In 2008, the men most responsible for the financial crisis which messed up the lives of millions of people around the world, walked away with millions of dollars in their pockets. Margin Call does not claim to be about these men (it’s not a true story) but we presume it is giving us a glimpse of what might have happened in those first days of the crisis.

The big cheese in the firm is John Tuld, played brilliantly by Jeremy Irons. Tuld tells Sam that there will always be the haves and the have-nots and the percentage of those who are rich and those who are poor will always be the same. That is just the way the world works. I would like to see some statistics to back this up, but even if it is true it does not address the fact that in recent decades the rich minority have been getting richer while the poor majority have been getting poorer. In any event, to use such a statistic to justify being one of the wealthy and to justify destroying the lives of millions of people is the utmost in cold-hearted arrogance.

The question that comes up repeatedly in Margin Call is whether the work these investment traders are doing is worthwhile – does it contribute to the wellbeing of society. The usual response in the film is that it of course it helps people, but when Sam makes his big speech to rally his traders to sell worthless investments, he is completely unconvincing as he tells them that the work they do is for the common good. For me, the underlying message of Margin Call is that the way money is traded today is a game that only benefits the rich. As the Occupy movement has identified, it’s time to investigate and evaluate the ridiculous greedy practices on Wall Street, the ones exposed so well in the great documentary Inside Job (one of my favourite films of 2010).

Margin Call may be one of my favourite films of 2011. It gets a very solid ***+ heading toward ****. My mug is up.


  1. A very good movie and worthy of some extended comments. It is amazing that this is Chandor's first movie. It does have the feel of a play as you suggest, which is a quality I tend to love in a film. Here is a moment of brilliance that I will highlight: Towards the end, we hear several extended speeches putting perspectives on what has happened: Will's speech in the car, Sam's speech to the traders, Tuld's speech to Sam, and Eric's somewhat tangential speech about bridge-building. This mosaic of perspectives provides a very thoughtful and open-ended analysis of what has happened and is happening - all with varying grains of truth (even if only the perceived or justifying truths that people cling to). Will's speech resonates the most for me (though I certainly don't come to the same conclusion). It reminds me of my favourite quote of recent years: "[we] have to help good people see how they have let their institutions do their sinning for them" - P. Storey. Will says that people want the wealth Wall St creates without wanting to know how it is made so that they stay "innocent." He also says the fascinating line(with many expletives added for colour): "if we take our fingers off the scale, the whole world gets fair really quickly."

    I actually interpreted the role of the dying dog differently. The initial scene created the opposite of sympathy for me - here was a guy in the midst of, and partly responsible for, many lives being devastated and he is sad for his dog. I think Will was dumbfounded. It was showing the disconnect that his career had created in his life. He has a soft, human side, but being "on the side of the firm" has broken and disconnected that humanity.

    1. I actually had exactly the same reaction to the early scene about the dying dog and I'm convinced that was intended (as you also hint at), but I also believe (as I said in my review) that, at the same time, we are supposed to sympathize with Sam's humanity (broken and disconnected as it may be).