Coinciding with the Occupy Wall Street demonstrations around the world protesting the gap between the concentration of wealth in one percent of the population and the rest of the nine-nine percent, first-time director J.C. Chandor’s Margin Call looks at the motives and morality of those in positions of power in a fictional 107-year-old financial institution and how they react in a career-threatening crisis. Though, on the surface, the film seems to be an attack on those who, in the phrase of author Charles Eisenstein, “occupy a world of pure symbol, manipulating numbers, and computer bits…disconnected from the world of human suffering,” ultimately its message seems to be directed not only at the ninety-nine percent, but also at the one percent, urging them to begin connecting with their humanity and conscience.
Margin Call takes place over a 24-hour period in the boardrooms of a company that must do anything to survive, no matter how many bodies are strewn along the path. While the film takes on the “crony capitalism” denounced by President Obama in 2009, Chandor, who relied heavily on his father’s experiences working for Merrill Lynch for 40 years, insists that the purpose of his film is not to “teach people the evils of capitalism,” but only to tell a human story. Intentionally or not, the film does both.
Set in 2008 at the beginning of the worldwide financial crisis, Margin Call is supported by a superb ensemble cast including Kevin Spacey in one of his best performances in years as a soul-searching executive who has been with the same company for 34 years, Stanley Tucci as a recently deep-sixed manager whose files portend trouble for the company, Demi Moore as the only woman executive on the team, and Jeremy Irons as the ultimate profit-driven CEO who is more interested in the company’s ability to pay another round of exorbitant bonuses than in who is marginalized in the process.
As the film opens, we are made aware that people are going to be fired, lots of them. The first to go is risk analyst Eric Dale (Tucci) who it seems has discovered phony investments that threaten the company’s financial solvency. Before Dale is unceremoniously escorted out of the building, he tells his employee, Peter Sullivan (Zachary Quinto), to “be careful.” Sullivan, after verifying that Dale’s figures are correct, tells his co-worker Seth (Penn Badgley) about the files and both contact the cynical upper-echelon trader Will Emerson (Paul Bettany). Company managers, headed by CEO John Tuld (Jeremy Irons), who is reported to be making a yearly salary of $86 million dollars, are forced into an all-night meeting to devise a strategy to rescue the company.
Others called into the late-night meetings to search for a method of damage control are Jared Cohen (Simon Baker), another top-executive, as well as analysts Sarah Robertson (Demi Moore), and Ramesh Shaw (Aasif Mandvi). Led by Sam Rogers (Spacey), the plan is to sell worthless assets at the highest possible price to unsuspecting buyers, realizing that it may come back to haunt them. To ease their consciences, they offer substantial financial packages to those being let go and large bonuses to those whose job it is to sell the worthless bonds. The executives are not portrayed as devils, but as people who simply rationalize their questionable actions by claiming that there have always been financial crises.
The fact is that the film, in addition to showing the ethical culpability of some at the highest level of the country’s financial operations, creates sympathy for those who are riding a merry-go-round on which they are unable to get off. Rogers questions if what he is doing is right and others have doubts as well as to how nurturing their way of life actually is, Contrasting his empty existence in the world of Wall Street with a previous job, Eric Dale remarks that, as an engineer, he once built a bridge over the Ohio River that saved thousands of people great amounts of time and money.When Tuld tells Rogers that his work is better than digging ditches, Sam tells him that, at least in the case of digging ditches, there are holes in the ground to show for the effort. If Margin Call and the Occupy Wall Street demonstrators have one thing in common, it is the wish for a good life not only for those who are left behind, but also for those imprisoned in glass-enclosed skyscrapers, unable to experience the beauty of what can be created. Both are also in sync with the message: Wake up folks! The game is nearly over.
©2011 Howard Schumann
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