Margin Call

In Films, M by Ben Winkley

With more big names than a Lithuanian phone book, Margin Call is a timely, big-screen take on the financial crisis from the rarified point of view of those who caused it.

With more big names than a Lithuanian phone book,
Margin Call is a timely, big-screen take on the financial crisis from the
rarified point of view of those who caused it.
While 99% per cent of us will have to wait for an
update of The Grapes of Wrath, here’s what the 1% was up to.

Margin Call begins with a
neat metaphor. It’s redundancy day at an investment bank – a process
traditionally handled with all the subtlety and caring of an abattoir worker
putting a bolt in a cow’s head – and the head of risk management is among the
first to get the chop.

As he’s escorted from the
building, Eric Dale (Stanley Tucci)
hands a data stick containing his unfinished work to junior trader Peter
Sullivan (Zachary Quinto) and tells
him to be careful. Intrigued, Sullivan burns the midnight oil and completes
Dale’s model which shows the bank is teetering on the brink of collapse, having
leveraged itself so far that the slightest shift in the market would leave it
with losses dwarfing its worth.

With only a few hours
until the markets open, the race is on to find a solution before the end-of-day
margin call when, if you owe money, it must be found.

As the severity of the
problem becomes clear, so more odious characters emerge further up the
corporate food chain. Paul Bettany’s
likeable wide-boy Will Emerson answers to Kevin
’s burnt-out head of trading Sam Rogers who in turn defers to
hard-arsed middle managers Simon Baker
and Demi Moore.

Finally there’s Jeremy Irons’ magnificent CEO John
Tuld, a repulsive, reptilian, uber-capitalist and a man who, after the shit has
hit the fan, calmly sits back and starts to think about how much money can be
made from the mess that he’s got everyone into.

‘Normal’ people are
notable by their absence, seen only in the form of a mute office cleaner or
two, or as New York residents going about their blurred business, viewed from
the back of a chauffer-driven car. Reduced to ‘those people’, unrelated to the
numbers and graphs on the screen, the disconnection between the air-conditioned
offices and the actual, affected world is acute.

As the bank’s board
assembles in the early, early hours, there’s another metaphor – Sullivan, who
opened the can of worms, reveals that he’s a qualified rocket scientist and
ended up in banking because it’s all just adding up numbers and, frankly, the
money is better. And that’s why we’re living in debt and not living on the

Margin Call has a subtle
anti-capitalism message. There isn’t any black-and-white, no salt-of-the-earth
blue-collar workers like Martin Sheen
in Wall Street to balance out the
Aston Martin-driving, made-to-measure-suit wearing Masters of the Universe.

Instead there’s what we
all encounter every day – shades of grey. The junior traders and their bosses
are too wrapped up in making money to think about whether it’s doing any
broader good. Everyone is in it up to his or her neck and no one wants to take
responsibility. And what applies in the banks applies to us all.

Bettany’s character nails
the dichotomy at the heart of the system, informing his terrified junior that
the masses don’t mind taking advantage of the good times but are the first to
bitch and moan when things go belly-up.

“They want what we have to
give them but they also want to play innocent and pretend they have no idea
where it came from. Well, that’s more hypocrisy than I’m willing to swallow, so
fuck em. Fuck normal people.”

Hollywood’s first stab at
the financial crisis, writer/director J.C.
’s Margin Call is a taut morality tale that will leave you with more
questions than answers about where we all go from here.