Margin Call is a film that features an ensemble cast of talented actors digging in to a script seemingly developed with the intent to provide an ensemble cast of talented actors something to dig into. It isn’t quite the Glengarry Glen Ross of high finance films–it isn’t nearly as over-the-top, nor is it nearly as entertaining–though there’s the sense, perhaps, that the screenwriter, J.C. Chandor, probably watched Glengarry Glen Ross at some point in the planning stages. Make of that what you will.
As an indictment of the investment banking system that over-leveraged itself to the brink of, or even fully to, destruction, ushering the United States (and by extension, basically, the world) into the financial crisis of 2008, it’s pretty damning. Only…if you aren’t already up-to-speed on the finer details of precisely what the hell happened, don’t expect Margin Call to answer that question for you.
Margin Call head-fakes the viewer about three times into assuming it is about to deliver a proper general rundown of the excesses, market factors, policies, etc., that brought everything to a head, but then it never does. So for the most part, what we get is, “Our trading algorithms were wrong–we traded too far outside of our risk tolerance, and it’s going to be a stampede to be the first one out the door.” Okay. But that isn’t really telling us a lot.
Though I did appreciate the running joke, of sorts, that the higher one traveled up the totem pole, the less likely one would be to discover anybody who truly grasped even the rudimentary principles of the risk management calculations driving the trading strategy. If Margin Call demonstrates anything, it is that financial services companies will always be heavily driven by the bottom line, whatever the cost.
With all of that said, as a character study of the sorts of personalities that thrive on Wall Street, I found Margin Call to be pretty revealing. The script’s strength, I think, is that it isn’t overly concerned with villainizing its characters. That the viewer may come away from the film having found some of these people reprehensible isn’t particularly the point. Margin Call is at its best when it plumbs the mindset and worldview required in order to almost abstract one’s own actions from the lives of mere mortals when controlling the flow of epic amounts of cash every day. Many of the players, like Paul Bettany’s character, walk some weird moral tightrope between being cynical assholes and true believers.
A scenery-chewing Jeremy Irons, playing the CEO of the fictionalized financial services company featured in the film, delivers a pretty interesting monologue near the end, in which his ultimate assertion resolves to this: it’s all made up. The Wall Street economy is, as he sees it, sort of like a real-world game of monopoly, funny-money and all. And the disquieting thing about it is that there is some truth to it, since paper money only really holds the value to which we assign it. And when it is all driven to the next level of abstraction with so much of money existing, essentially, electronically, it kind of makes sense that the people controlling our financial instruments are going to lose their heads periodically and ultimately end up screwing over the little guy.
Not that anybody should be happy about it. And it’s small consolation that firms like the one depicted in the film crash and burn hard.