Margin Call

Margin Call

Static Mass Rating: 5/5
Stealth Media Group

Release date: January 13th, 2012
Certificate (UK): 15
Running time: 106 minutes

Writer and director: J.C. Chandor

Cast: Kevin Spacey, Paul Bettany, Demi Moore, Jeremy Irons, Stanley Tucci, Zachary Quinto, Penn Badgley, Simon Baker

In 2008 a strange thing happened. The financial bubble we’d been happily living in since the 80’s finally burst and although analysts and experts had been predicting it for years it came as a shock to us all.

Jobs, pensions, homes and entire companies went under and while we blamed bankers and market traders for the financial collapse the one thing we never did was blame ourselves.

Margin Call, written and directed by J.C. Chandor and featuring an impressive ensemble cast, is a film that puts the early days of the collapse under close inspection.

Margin Call

Set within roughly 24 hours of a New York trading firm, the drama begins to unfold almost immediately with a series of lay-offs that sees risk management boss Eric Dale (Stanley Tucci) out the front door. Before departing he hands junior risk analyst Peter Sullivan (Zachary Quinto) a file on a USB stick that he’s been working on and tells him to be careful.

When Peter begins working on it what he finds is enough to get his colleague Seth Bregman (Penn Badgley), his boss Will Emerson (Paul Bettany) and his boss’ boss Sam Rogers (Kevin Spacey) back to the office at 11pm. The firm has been involved in high-risk trading to such a level that in the past couple of weeks they’ve been operating purely on losses. The danger they now face is that these losses will eventually become greater than the firm’s assets.

They decide to get senior executives to have a look at the numbers. Head of securities Jared Cohen (Simon Baker) and head of risk Sarah Robertson (Demi Moore) both agree that the numbers don’t add up and they haven’t for quite some time. The next step is alerting CEO John Tuld (Jeremy Irons) who then wants the firm to begin selling off their toxic assets the next day before the market catches on that they’re worthless. In other words, a fire sale.

Margin Call

Margin Call raises a lot of questions, not just on the ethics of selling your customers something that you know is worthless but also in the way senior staff like Cohen and Robertson are happy to put their survival before the livelihoods of others and contribute so heavy handedly in the collapse of the market with their toxic assets.

The dictum of “Greed is good”, though unspoken, is clearly a mantra which many still live their lives by and even though Emerson and Rogers are in it for the money there is still a hint of conscience in them. Faced with agreeing to Tuld’s solution or being fought on it, their moral dilemma forms the backbone of the film as they’re also tasked with bringing back Dale to make sure he stands with the firm’s decision.

Margin Call

What’s also interesting is the way Margin Call widens the net to cast the blame for the collapse of the market. For too long we’ve been happy to point the finger at the financial sector for getting us into this mess but during a conversation Emerson has with Bregman he asserts that “normal people” are just as much to blame:

“If people want to live like this… with their big cars and these houses that they haven’t even paid for, then you are necessary. The only reason they can continue to live like kings is because we’ve got our fingers on the scale in THEIR favour. And if I were to take my finger off… then the whole world gets really fucking fair, really fucking quickly. And no one wants that, they say they do…but they don’t. They want what we’re giving them, but they also want to play innocent and pretend they have no idea how we get it. And that’s more hypocrisy than I can swallow. So fuck ‘em.”

As with Inside Job (2010), Margin Call opens up the world of market trading, toxic assets and a collapse that insiders knew was coming. While it raises many questions for us all, least of all the one about accountability, there’s one that’s left quietly unanswered; would the outcome have been different if you were making those choices?

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