„Margin Call” by J.C. Chandor

When the Music Stops…

The first scenes of J.C. Chandor’s Margin Call, chilling as they may be, are mere prelude to a nightmare.

Imagine a busy Wall Street office. The camera follows two grim-faced women as they go down the hall. The women are on a special mission. Many employees of a huge financial company – eighty percent of the trading floor – are about to get fired. The Board has ordered a bloodbath at or near the bottom of the food chain.

Seth and Peter, young analysts in Risk Management, can see the firing squad and start to panic. If they could, they would disappear into some hole. One of their bosses tells them to calm down and go back to work. This seems like sound advice. Their situation, precarious at the best of times, depends on a thousand things beyond their control, so why panic? As it turns out, they stay alive, at least for now. 

Cut to a glass-walled room. Seated at the table are the two HR women – let’s call them “Ms. Friend” and “Ms. Foe” – and a man in his 50s.

Ms. Friend (Ashley Williams) is a kind person with a sweet smile and a smooth, soothing voice. Her job is to assist the man with, as she so nicely puts it, this transition in his life. At the end, she hands him her card, then a folder with a sailboat on the cover and the caption LOOKING AHEAD below it.  

Ms. Foe (Susan Blackwell), for her part, is all business, no nonsense. She has nothing but bad news for the man. She stares at him fixedly, like Dracula at Jonathan Harker in Nosferatu the Vampyre, and speaks in a flat robotic voice with vocal fry. Her task is to get the man to accept the firm’s conditions and send him home forever.

The man, Eric Dale, runs – ran – Risk Management, a sensitive area for a company trading in mortgage-backed securities, collateralized debt obligations, credit default swaps, subprime loans, and similar financial “products.” Eric mentions a project he has been working on, but Ms. Foe cuts him short. The firm has worked out its transition plan and is prepared to move forward, she says. A sad day for someone who served it as best he could for over nineteen years.

Eric clears out his personal belongings and is escorted to the elevators by security. Before he leaves, he takes a flash drive out of his pocket and hands it to Peter at arm’s length, as if it’s a ticking time bomb. And just as the elevator doors are closing, he says, Be careful.

End of Act I.   

Of course, I’m not going to describe every scene and act (Margin Call, like another recommendable office drama Glengarry Glenn Ross, is a play in cinematic disguise). I will focus instead on the characters, the dramatis personae, because in film, as in life, there is nothing more interesting or important than people and their struggles with reality.

Let’s start at the bottom of the corporate ladder.

Seth Bregman (Penn Badgley) is a selfish, money-obsessed kid straight out of college. His trademark question is, What do you think X makes in a year? X may mean his boss, his boss’s boss, the boss of all bosses, a stripper in a local bar, anyone. Like many people in his situation, Seth lives in denial. He says he tries not to let work get to him, but after discovering he will be fired in the next bloodbath, he cries his heart out and whines to the head honcho of the office, a robot in human form, You’re about to fire me… This is all I ever wanted to do. After Eric Dale gets axed, Seth and Peter meet him to say goodbye, but Seth – unlike Peter – leaves the moment he learns he won’t get fired. Seth doesn’t know or care what’s right, because he’s learned in college that everything is relative. Right? I mean… Right is… Right is…, he mumbles like a zombie at some point. And yet, Seth is acutely aware of his absurd situation. I made nearly a quarter of a million dollars last year, he says to Peter. For what? I push numbers around on a computer screen. A bunch of glorified crack addicts take that information, pretend to understand it, and they bet against some other jock halfway around the world, who, you know, if he wasn’t doing this, he’d be in an OTB somewhere, putting it all on number seven. Seth gets the ax in the end, but that may be a blessing in disguise, who knows?   

Peter Sullivan (Zachary Quinto) is the only surviving analyst who can make sense of Eric Dale’s mathematical models and explain the company’s problem to the Board. A former rocket scientist, Peter is a sensitive and humane young man, mature beyond his age. Asked how he ended up in the firm, he says, Well, it’s all just numbers, really. Just changing what you’re adding up, and to speak freely, the money here is considerably more attractive. Peter has been with the company for only two and a half years, and it shows. He is by turns amazed and embarrassed by what he can see around him. That, however, will change. Not only will he survive the post-fire sale carnage, but he will get promoted. John Tuld, the CEO, will need all the brains he can get, because, quote, there’s going to be a lot of money to be made coming out of this mess. Of course, John Tuld knows the firm may be declared “too big to fail” and bailed out with taxpayer dollars. (Margin Call, if you haven’t guessed it already, was inspired by events leading up to the bankruptcy of the U.S. investment bank Lehman Brothers and, more broadly, to the 2008 global financial crisis.)  

Eric Dale (Stanley Tucci), the engineer-turned-analyst, seems like a decent fellow. He is the principal character in an absurdist comedy that could be called “Where’s Eric Dale?” or “Get me Eric Dale!” Once he gets fired, his company phone is shut off “for security purposes.” When it becomes clear the firm has wandered into a financial minefield, its execs can’t reach him, because – surprise! – Eric’s phone is off, and so is his personal cell. All they can do is mentally curse the dumbhead who disconnected it. Even though Peter explains to the Board why the company is on the brink of collapse, the CEO still wants Eric back in the office. Why? Because Eric knows too much. He may go public. Testify in court or before government agencies. Write a tell-all piece for The New York Times or some other paper about the wonderful time he had in the firm. Perhaps even land a book deal. (Suppose his story makes Oprah’s Book Club List? Perish the thought.) In short, paranoia sets in. The company makes Eric an offer he can’t refuse: Take $176,471.00 an hour and sit quietly in the office till the fire sale is over, or we’ll fight you on everything from your options through healthcare for the next two years. Eric is proud, but not unreasonable; he is married, has three kids and a mortgage to pay. When he returns to the office, he bumps into his former boss, Sarah Robertson, who’s just been terminated. Enter Eric. Exit Sarah.        

Will Emerson (Paul Bettany), the Head of Trading, is an expert on how to sell “products” nobody in their right mind should buy. Poor Will has no control over his life, which is owned by a ruthless and insane master: money. The thing about Will is, he spends his bucks as fast as he can. It’s quite clear he wants to get away, break free from something. Could it be the feeling that people experience when they stand on the edge, [which] isn’t a fear of falling, [but] the fear that they might jump? (Will Emerson’s words.) In any case, Will is known to have quickly spent almost his entire annual salary of $2.5 million. His story is actually quite simple: The taxman takes half up front, so you’re left with one and a quarter. My mortgage takes another 300 grand. I send 150 home for my parents, you know, [to] keep them going. [Will isn’t as selfish as it might seem.] … Spent 150 on a car. About 75 on restaurants. Probably 50 on clothes. I put 400 away for a rainy day… I did spend $76,520 on hookers, booze, and dancers. But mainly hookers [laughs]. The funniest part comes at the end. I was a little shocked initially, but then I realized that I could claim most of it back as entertainment. It’s true [laughs hard]. Will may not be wise, but he’s intelligent enough to know that his life is empty, devoid of meaning or purpose, a living death. That’s exactly why he’s depressed, suicidal, possibly on the verge of losing his marbles. If anything, his unbridled hedonism makes things worse. The more he indulges in momentary pleasures, the more he is frustrated. The more he wants, the less he gets, so he wants more and more, so he gets less and less: a devilish trap. 

None of this means Will is an evil character. At one point, John Tuld has concerns that Will’s boss, Sam Rogers, may not be willing to sell the company’s assets before the market learns they’re worthless. John orders Jared Cohen to get Will to do the right thing or, more precisely, replace Sam if necessary. Jared says to Will, …in acute situations such as this, often what is right can take on multiple interpretations. [As you can see, Jared is no stranger to the fashionable theory of relativism.] But Will stays loyal to his boss. Just to make it clear, he says, [Sam] and I have always had the same interpretation of what’s right, no matter how acute the situation. Will is candid where many people in his position tell lies or play dumb; respects those who deserve to be respected (like Eric); ignores those who should be ignored (e.g. Jared); and is openly critical about the monkey business going on in the firm. He is the most enigmatic character in the movie, as complex as only a human being can be.

Sam Rogers (Kevin Spacey), head of the trading floor, is the main protagonist of Margin Call. Sam has been with the firm for an unbelievable thirty-four years. Not only is he vastly experienced but, unlike the other senior executives, competent and responsible. Sam is sick of his job and the crapola that goes along with it (watch his face when he says, I’ve been at this place thirty-four years), yet he carries on. Unfortunately, his old-school principles are at odds with postmodern anything-goes freedom. As a result, Sam is torn between two conflicting values: his loyalty to the firm and his knowledge of what’s right. The conflict is finally resolved by the highest arbiter: money. When the fire sale is over, Sam tells John Tuld he wants to quit. But he soon changes his mind. Why? Hard to understand after all these years, he says with a self-deprecating smile, but I still need the money. In the last scene, Sam digs a hole to bury his only friend, Ella (his dog), along with everything else he’s lost, near his former home, now owned by his ex-wife (Mary McDonell).

Sarah Robertson (Demi Moore) and Jared Cohen (Simon Baker), Chief Risk Management Officer and, presumably, Managing Director, are very much alike. Both are unscrupulous, reckless, and equally incompetent. Both are largely responsible for the crisis because they ignored, or downplayed, warnings from their associates. To top it off, Sarah sacked the best risk management specialist, Eric Dale, at a critical moment for the firm. No wonder, then, that as soon as the Board starts looking for the culprit, or rather scapegoat, Sarah and Jared are at each other’s throats. They both realize one of them must go, because the CEO needs, to quote his lovely phrase, a head to feed to the traders on the floor and the board. The company is run by men, and boys playing at men, so it’s Sarah who takes the fall, no surprise there.

To deal with the crisis, John Tuld (Jeremy Irons), the all-powerful CEO, descends from the sky by helicopter, which clearly shows he is a god. J.C. Chandor puts a comic twist on a crude plot device, known in Classical Greek and Roman drama as deus ex machina (Latin for god from the machine), whereby a deity was suddenly brought onto stage using a machine and resolved an insoluble problem.

And so, here we are – we the plebs – in the presence of a supernatural being, a master of the universe, a neo-feudal lord, a role model for newcomers to finance, the quintessential one-percenter (John made $86 million in a year in bonuses and salary and was worth a billion before the meltdown). John Tuld is charming and witty, or so at least it seems. He is endearingly honest, too. Speak to me as you might to a young child, or a golden retriever, he says jovially. It wasn’t brains that got me here, I can assure you of that. But when Sam Rogers objects to the planned sale of assets, John drops his genial mask and reveals himself for what he really is: just another sociopath in a designer suit.

Sam: But John, if you do this, you will kill the market for years. It’s over. [John nods his head and makes a face indicating he doesn’t give a damn.] And you’re selling something that you know has no value. John [speaks with emphasis, shaking his finger in the air]: We are selling to willing buyers at the current fair market price [raises his voice], so we may survive [twists something invisible with his fingers]. Sam: You will never sell anything to any of those people ever again. John [with a helpless gesture]: I understand. Sam: Do you? John [yells, tapping the table with his finger]: Do you?! This is it! I’m telling you! This is it!   

What is it, exactly, that John wants to sell at the current fair market price, even though he knows it has no value? It is, to use his own words, the biggest bag of odorous excrement ever assembled in the history of capitalism. Then why does he want to sell it? Because, and here I quote his own maxim, there are three ways to make a living in finance: Be first, be smarter, or cheat. Now, I don’t cheat, he adds quickly, and concludes, It sure is a hell of a lot easier to just be first.

He does not cheat? Is he kidding?

Not at all.

From his perspective, he is right. Relatively speaking, he does not cheat.

Let me explain.

The excrement to be sold may be odorous, toxic, and worthless, but it does have a “fair market value” and a high rating from reputable agencies that present their “opinions,” not accurate assessments based on objective facts. There is no reason why it shouldn’t be sold to investors, especially since the company is in business only to make a profit and if things go south, it should cut its losses. That’s all there’s to it. Any ethical or social concerns are peripheral, frankly irrelevant, and even somewhat ridiculous, aren’t they?

Besides, everything is relative, remember?

According to the postmodernist philosopher Sirius Hoecks, there is no objective or universal truth, because even contradictory views are equally true in some sense. There are only perspectives and interpretations, driven by personal interests or, as Nietzsche would say, will to power. Everything is a matter of opinion, and there is no objective fact that could make one belief right and the others wrong. Indeed, there are no guiding principles of right or wrong, which are reactionary, authoritarian concepts imposed on us by dead white European males for their nefarious purposes, such as supremacy and tyranny. Who is to say what’s right or wrong, anyway? A truly progressive person is therefore tolerant and – above all – non-judgmental. Only such an individual can thrive in a diverse, inclusive, and egalitarian society open to numerous alternative points of view.

So much for Professor Hoecks and his theory of relativism. Now back to the film.  

Margin Call, let me repeat, is a play disguised as a movie and, like every play, it relies a lot on great dialogue and acting. Luckily, J.C. Chandor has a good ear for Darwinian corporate speak (You have to throw them a bone, and a pretty big one…. Young guys are always the first to get culled… I want you to hit every bite you can find. Dealers, brokers, clients, your mother, if she’s buying…, etc.). The acting, it should be stressed, ranges from first-rate to stupendous. The women from the Inhuman Resources Department, for example, will make your hair curl, even if you’re bald. Paul Bettany does a terrific job as a guy walking a tightrope between sanity and madness. Kevin Spacey’s portrayal of Sam Rogers, a disillusioned “man of success,” is nuanced, poignant, excellent in every way. And finally – Jeremy Irons. Well, what can I say? Jeremy Irons is sensational as the captain of a behemoth ship drifting, like Hieronymus Bosch’s Ship of Fools, toward disaster. Try the emergency board meeting scene, and you’ll know what I mean. Everything about Irons’s performance is delightful: the voice modulation, the body language, the lord-of-the-manor posturing, even the little mannerisms, such as running his finger along the table. 

How realistic is that scene? you may ask. Now, there is a certain problem with so-called realism in feature films. Contrary to what anyone might think, moviemakers do not copy reality; they create a fictional, imaginary world that may or may not look like our own. When it does, however, we usually talk about realism, though we might just as well talk about illusionism, as we do when referring to paintings that deceive the eye (Fr. trompe-l’œil). Sometimes the illusion is so complete that, mesmerized, or quite simply fooled, we take it for the real thing. Example? In the real world, nobody shines at four in the morning (imagine the boredom and the exhaustion, or the smell of stale pizza and the BO), but in a movie, even the dullest events can be made to look thrilling, and truer than the truth itself, if the right talent is there.

And one last thing: If you want to find out more about the 2008 global financial crisis, see the documentary Inside Job, described by its director Charles Ferguson as a film about the systemic corruption of the United States by the financial services industry and the consequences of that systemic corruption (Wikipedia). Inside Job can be enjoyed, if that’s the word, as a companion piece to Margin Call or on its own. In either case, get ready for an eye-opener or two and have tranquilizers at hand. 




© by Krzysztof Mąkosa



Director: J.C. Chandor

Writer: J.C. Chandor

Cinematography: Frank G. DeMarco

Music: Nathan Larson

Starring: Kevin Spacy (Sam Rogers), Paul Bettany (Will Emerson), Jeremy Irons (John Tuld), Zachary Quinto (Peter Sullivan), Stanley Tucci (Eric Dale), Penn Badgley (Seth Bregman), Demi Moore (Sarah Robertson), Simon Baker (Jared Cohen), et al.







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