Margin Call: Be First. Be Smarter. Or Cheat. (2011)

Posted: February 17, 2012 in Drama, Thriller

In the wake of some massive budget cuts, an investment bank fires 80% of its staff, including 19-year professional Eric Dale. During his exit from the building, his staffers, Peter Sullivan and Seth Bregman, say their goodbyes. Before heading down the elevator, he passes off a flash drive with the work he had left unfinished and tells Peter to be careful. Struck by his own curiosity, Peter plugs in the flash drive and starts sorting through the data. Believing he has found a dramatically catastrophic market issue, he calls back in Seth and his supervisor, Will Emerson. When the three confirm the worst, the realization drags in members of the company all the way up to the CEO to determine their next move. With the potential to either destroy their careers or the market, each of the professionals involved have to determine where they want to end up in the downfall before the rest of the world catches up to notice what is happening.

Starring: Zachary Quinto (Peter Sullivan), Kevin Spacey (Sam Rogers), Paul Bettany (Will Emerson), Jeremy Irons (John Tuld), Simon Baker (Jared Cohen), Penn Badgley (Seth Bregman), Demi Moore (Sarah Robertson), Mary McDonnell (Mary Rogers), Aasif Mandvi (Ramesh Shah), Stanley Tucci (Eric Dale), Ashley Williams (Heather Burke), Susan Blackwell (Lauren Bratberg)

To represent a wealthy and morally-confused collection of professionals, JC Chandor directed a cast of clean-cut professional actors giving a sense of the reality of the market world. Initially appearing to be disconnected from the common man, Kevin Spacey presents a sense of morality that takes different turns through each stage of the story. Zachary Quinto serves as the young analyst who discovers the issue and has a naiveté that that helps to highlight his call for help and overwhelmed expressions as the problems unfold. Paul Bettany’s character is more of the survivor. With a focus on how to save his job and avoid scrutiny, his perspective highlights much of what the average person struggles with when they think about Wall Street. This is even more true with Simon Baker, who immediately goes into protection mode with his own security. Though the head of the company is represented by the stereotypical, overpaid, privileged man, Jeremy Irons (John Tuld) is able to balance the portrayal of dignity with the element of deceit. Stanley Tucci’s character represents the depression and frustration accompanied with tough economic times and inappropriate business practices.

Chandor’s portrayal of the downturn of the economy gives a sense of the behind-the-scenes elements that most Americans would be interested in discovering further. When Peter is able to decode the data, it sends the entire company into a spiral. The film explains the problems of the big banks and investment companies but finds a way to do it without being too complicated or dumbing it down too much (other than the moment John Tuld requests for the problem to be explained in simple words). This company sold securities and leveraged the assets to manage a larger quantity of stock. If the assets decreased even by 25%, the entire company would go bankrupt and severely damage the larger market based on the company’s holdings. The discoveries by Peter revealed that the company had actually begun to show losses several days prior to when this discovery was made. This left a few options: continue to operate as usual and search for another option, absorb the hit by sacrificing the company or liquidating the assets and selling worthless securities to traders who are unaware of their problems.

On the positive side, the film takes a very current topic and dramatizes it in a way that is very entertaining. Each of the characters display the various levels of morality of people in the business. There is a risk element to this concept of monetary value, trading and securities that each professional approaches from different perspectives. With the formula everyone thought was proven expired, Sam and Paul express their concern with hurting the average person, whereas John and Jared simply do not care about the effect of their decisions on anyone but themselves. On the other hand, the film has an extremely slow start while showing a number of drawn out sequences as the members of the company gather. After the firing of Eric Dale highlighted the experience of downsizing, it was actually unclear what was discovered by Peter and even the purpose of the company. While the board room element brought back the drama, the period where each of the businessmen go their separate ways to reconcile their collective decision loses a bit of the momentum.

The concept of the movie is excellent, though there are some similar films out there that maintain a more compelling representation more consistently throughout the film. This is still worth a look to relive the reasons why the economy started tanking.

Dan’s Rating: 3.5/5

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