Once in my lifetime, I had an opportunity to make real money, instead of having to limp along on the sketchy, unreliable income of a freelance writer/editor. A relative who had done rather well for himself as a bond broker offered to help me get a gig on Wall Street. I didn’t blink twice before responding that I could never in a million years do anything like that for a living – not on moral grounds per se, but because “Money is boring.”
That was back in the days when, even on Wall Street, money actually stood for something that had value in the real world – before the days of leveraged buyouts and bundled mortgages and “innovative” financial instruments that turned out to be little more than pyramid schemes well-wrapped in gobbledegook. By the summer of 2008, as we now know, the markets and banking system, giddy with the sky’s-the-limit possibilities dangled by complete deregulation, had turned into a realm where money had become anything but boring – even if it was just Monopoly money in the hands of its manipulators.
Then everything came crashing down, leaving an awful lot of us living in the real world considerably poorer and less employed than before, and wondering why nobody who had been flinging that play-money around could see this coming. We get a chilling fictional glimpse inside the heads of a cluster of those guys in Margin Call, the very impressive first feature by former documentarian J. C. Chandor, who happens to be the son of a lifetime Merrill Lynch executive. The action takes place that fateful summer within the claustrophobic inner sanctums of a perilously overleveraged investment firm very like Lehman Brothers, over a period of less than 48 hours when the ground opened out from under this bunch of high-rolling traders and the great recession got underway.
Don’t be put off by the seemingly dry subject matter: The narrative is as tense and pulse-pounding as any spy thriller, despite the total absence of high-tech weaponry or things exploding or even people loudly losing their tempers; and the minute-by-minute-unfolding pace, which feels almost like real time, never drags. The arcane language of 21st-century banking is translated into concepts simple enough even for people like me, whose most-disliked high school course was Economics, to grasp without missing a beat. (In fact, the one detail in Margin Call that caused me to drop the plot thread for a few seconds was wondering whether Zachary Quinto’s eyebrows were really real or daubed on with black shoe polish.)
The plot of Margin Call is simple and straightforward: In a single day, the unnamed firm is laying off about three-quarters of the staff of its mortgage-packaging department. A senior risk management officer named Eric Dale (Stanley Tucci) is in the midst of trying to figure out why some very big numbers don’t add up when he is told to empty out his desk. On his way out the door he hands his unfinished work on a flash drive to his hotshot young protégé Peter Sullivan (Quinto). Sullivan, a literal rocket scientist, waits until the office empties that evening to study the data, quickly fills in the missing bits and reaches the conclusion that if the firm’s current high-risk mortgage portfolio should tank by 25 percent of its value, the entire operation will go belly-up. Oops.
The rest of the movie is all about damage control, and how each of the core group of financial analysts and their higher-ups copes with the stress (and in rare cases, ethical qualms) of knowing that they have to ditch their dicey holdings as fast as possible, Devil take the hindmost. Not having to spend much production money on big sets, props or special effects meant that Chandor was able to assemble a really topnotch ensemble of players to portray this white-knuckled cabal of risk junkies. They range across the pecking order from Penn Badgley as a starry-eyed 23-year-old trader who obsesses over his colleague’s relative salaries to Jeremy Irons as John Tuld, the charming-but-ruthless CEO who decides to ignite the “fire sale” that will bring down the entire national economy. Trying to cajole his reluctant lieutenant Sam Rogers, portrayed with profound sadness and delicacy by Kevin Spacey, into whipping up the troops for the slaughter, Tuld tries to rationalize the meaninglessness of the charade that they all have been playing with the hollow claim that “Our talents have been used for the greater good.”
I guess that everybody has their short list of underappreciated actors who can play anything and always rivet the eye when cast in a supporting role, but never seem to get the lead; Paul Bettany is definitely high on mine. In Margin Call he wears his shark suit as Will Emerson, Sullivan’s boss, a cynical bundle of nerves who is addicted to nicotine gum and spends an unconscionable portion of his $2 million salary on prostitutes, because forming any real relationships with other human beings is much riskier to someone in his position than any of the money games that he plays. Rogers, the most tragic character, illustrates what happens to employees of the firm who don’t play by this rule: His marriage has long fallen apart, and he can barely take a few hours off work to stand by while his dog is put to sleep: the only living thing with whom he feels close.
Emerson gets one of the better soliloquies in the excellent script, pounding the steering wheel of his expensive convertible while angrily denouncing the complicity of “normal people” who were only too happy to get access to mortgages that they couldn’t afford when times were fat. The character exemplifies the unwillingness of most of the traders to accept responsibility for the real-world ramifications of their actions, but Emerson also knows deep down that his life is essentially meaningless. He tells the downsized Dale, “You’re a better man than me.”
The sole woman is this pinstriped club of insiders is Sarah Robertson, a calculating climber ably played by Demi Moore. When Robertson gets thrown under the bus to cushion media fallout from the mega-margin call, her biggest regret seems to be that she can’t take her boss Jared Cohen (Simon Baker) down with her, since he’s the most coldblooded stinker of the whole bunch. Only the old-timers Rogers and Dale dare to question the value of what they do for a living, or consider the impact of what is about to happen on the rest of humanity.
But even the snake-eyed Tuld admits that money, after all, is just “pieces of paper with pictures on them so we don’t have to kill each other to eat.” You’ve got to wonder if it’s guys like him – or his real-life counterparts – whom the Occupy Wall Street people have in mind when they hoist their signs reading “Eat the Rich.”