Margin Call takes us high above Manhattan to the airy, glass-walled world of Wall Street. Here, employees of an unnamed financial firm make millions by following the business philosophy of CEO John Tuld (Jeremy Irons): “Be first, be smarter or cheat.” The firm’s elevated position illustrates the elevated positions of its employees, looking down on the rest of the world; they have advanced degrees from the most prestigious universities, they dress sharper and they own better cars. Yet these are the very same people who bear at least some responsibility for toppling our world by bringing about the financial crisis of 2008.
“Margin Call” looks at them sympathetically but honestly, asking to what extent they are at fault. Tuld and the chillingly callous president of the company, Jared Cohen (Simon Baker), are avaricious and selfish, but employees Sam Rogers (Kevin Spacey) and Eric Dale (Stanley Tucci) have personal lives, desperate desires to justify their work as important and dying dogs.
The movie–a superb first effort from J.C. Chandor–is best described as a financial thriller. This description may seem oxymoronic, but “Margin Call” turns spreadsheets, graphs and numbers into a compelling drama. The movie opens with the firm unceremoniously letting the majority of its workforce go. Among those fired (after 19 years of service to the firm) is Dale. As the elevator doors close on him, Dale gives one of his underlings, Peter Sullivan (Zachary Quinto), a flash drive and a warning: “Be careful.” Sullivan stays at the office and completes Dale’s work. The young analyst has discovered facts so calamitous they put the entire company’s future at stake. The entire upper-level management team, including boss Will Emerson (Paul Bettany) and co-worker Seth Bregman (Penn Badgley), is brought in for an emergency meeting at the office. It is 2 a.m. when CEO Tuld arrives on a helicopter.
The movie continues with these men–and one woman, Sarah Robertson (Demi Moore)–working throughout the night to determine their plan of action. The intensity slows slightly, but Rogers’ attempts to reconcile his moral values with what the firm decides to do keep us hooked.
The financial jargon in “Margin Call” is difficult to comprehend, and sometimes things are made unclear simply to heighten mystery and tension. The attempt to create a personal life for Rogers does not work; he is already the most sympathetic character, and so a brief scene with an ex-wife (Mary McDonnell) who does not come up again adds little to the story but distraction. However, the dialogue is so precise and tense, the acting (especially by Spacey), cinematography and score so good, that these negative aspects barely detract.
“Margin Call” treats a topical subject with a perfect blend of suspense, drama and humor–a highly recommendable film.