By Marc S. Sanders
Could it have been possible that a rocket scientist and a bridge engineer uncovered one of the biggest market crashes in American history? Writer/Director J.C. Chandor’s first film, Margin Call, will have you believe that. It makes sense when you think about it. Numbers and bar graphs and pie charts and zig zagging lines become so complex with themselves that you have to wonder how people wearing $1500 designer suits and selling products over the phone could decipher such nonsense. So, it would take a rocket scientist to unravel such an exceedingly large ball of rubber bands in only one night. Yet, how does a rocket scientist and a bridge engineer come to encounter this predicament. Easy. It’s all about money. You might be the greatest scientist in the world, but if the pay isn’t right, is the science really worth it?
Zachary Quinto plays Peter Sullivan, the rocket scientist from MIT. Stanley Tucci plays Eric Dale, the bridge engineer. They abandoned their college majors and specialties to go where the earnings are much more lucrative. They both work in the risk management department for a large, unnamed New York investment bank. On a Thursday afternoon, along with a whole slew of other people, Eric is fired. His company cell phone is immediately shut off and he’s escorted quickly out of the building along with his personal belongings. Before he leaves, he’s able to pass off a computer file for Peter to have a look at. Eric was close to completing something deeply impactful, but didn’t get a chance to finish. When Peter stays late after work to download the file, a stunned look eventually appears across his face, and he’s quickly calling back his workmates at 10 o’clock at night. Those guys were getting hammered at the nightclub downtown, celebrating that they were not on the chopping block earlier in the day.
The cataclysmic results of Peter’s discovery is first passed on to his buddy Seth (Penn Badgely), then to the next level up which is Will Emerson, supervisor of trading (Paul Bettany). Will then tosses it over to the higher risk supervisor, Sam Rogers (Kevin Spacey), who then passes it on to the Jared Cohen (Simon Baker), maybe the company’s second in command. Jared assembles the men to meet with Sarah Robinson and Ramesh Shah (Demi Moore and Aasif Mandvi), who compute risk at even high level.
Chandor is so genuine with his script and characters that as the earth-shattering news gets shared and then shared again and again, each higher up the food chain demands that it be explained to them in simple English. By the time, Jared passes on this news to the head, HEAD Honcho, John Fuld (Jeremy Irons in a thankfully scene stealing performance), it is being requested of Peter to speak to John as if he were a golden retriever. I guess in the corporate world, the sharper your clothes and hairstyle are, as well as the more formal your position title is called, the simpler the explanations need to become. The ones who earn the big bucks don’t sit on the top floor to be belabored with charts and graphs that lack prestige and personality.
I want to point out a symbolic sequence here as well. Each higher up seems to work on a higher floor than the other. So, Seth and Peter accompany Will and Sam up an elevator to where Sarah, Ramesh and Jared are located. After this meeting, Seth, Peter and Will go up on the rooftop of the building to smoke and commiserate. Will even considers jumping. They are then interrupted from an even higher level beyond the pinnacle of the building. A helicopter arrives with John in tow. God has descended at this inconvenient hour to tend to his prophets and their disciples.
Margin Call might sound like a complex assembly of numbers and math. It really isn’t though, because Chandor approaches his film without ever really giving away how complex the issue is. Instead, he demonstrates how deep it is. Sam focuses on a computer screen and asks “Wait, is that number right?” Peter’s nervousness is enhanced with his hands laced behind his head as he paces back and forth. Will has been chewing on Nicorette gum up to this point. Midway through the film, he’s back to smoking. Seth understands that the mass firing he just survived hours earlier will inevitably catch up to him and all he can do is cry on the toilet. Sarah comforts herself by asking Peter if the report he’s laid out is his work. She wants to be excluded from being a cause of the crisis. The best indicator of how serious and intense this has become is when an ice cool looking and handsome Simon Baker (even the blue tie he wears says icy cool) as Jared asks for the time. It’s 2:15am. He mutters to himself “Fuck me,” and then asks again for the time. It’s 2:16. “Fuck me,” with a leap off the chair and a distant stare out the window.
The nature of the problem isn’t so important to grasp. What’s necessary to take away from Margin Call, is that the gods of currency have irresponsibly and deliberately neglected the warning signs. The returns have just been too damn good. Now the boat has taken on too much water to stay afloat, though. Chandor opts to focus on the response and behavior to the dilemma at hand. There’s whispered blame to be exchanged. There’s the need to stay silent. When Jeremy Irons eventually comes into the fold, he holds a board meeting and calmly asks for someone to explain the situation. Chandor points his camera on concerned close ups of middle age men not willing to speak up; messengers who truly believe they’ll be killed for delivering the dire news. Even Jared can’t speak.
The sad outcome of the film is actually how the crash of 2008 with Collateralized Debt Obligations and Sub Prime Mortgage Defaults (see Adam McKay’s The Big Short) played out on the eve of its first day. The investment bank in the film opts to sell off its worthless assets that enormously exceed the entire net worth of the billion-dollar company. Chandor’s film reminds us that it’s legal to do so, and the buyers of this “odorous bag of excrement,” are John and Jane Q. Public. At 9:30am, these brokers will put on the charm and sell at a price of $100/share knowing that by 2:00pm, it’ll be worth .65 cents/share, if they’re lucky. Their customers paid for porterhouse, but went home with a cold burger in a doggy bag. It’s the only way to survive.
There are no heroes in Margin Call. There are only profit makers. Profits that are earned at the expense of everyone else on the planet.