Margin Call

Years ago I applied for a job as a financial advisor. The interviews went great. I seemed to be a shoo-in for the job. The hiring manager, however, told me that every applicant was required to take a personality test. He assured me that this was just a formality. I took the test, and several days later I received a phone call from the manager. I could tell from the tone of his voice that it was not good news. He said that they could not give me the position, because, according to the test results, I was “too nurturing”. I swear, I’m not making this up.

Today I have a job working in a warehouse. The company that told me that I was “too nurturing” was generously bailed out by the government following the 2008 financial crisis. No doubt they have given bonuses to their unnurturing employees.

I was reminded of all this when I went to see Margin Call, written and directed by T.C. Chandor, a loosely fictionalized account of the collapse of Lehmann Brothers, which triggered the global economic meltdown in 2008. Eric Dale (Stanley Tucci) is laid off from his job at a financial firm. As he is being escorted from the building, he hands, as an afterthought, a thumb drive containing a program he has been working on to Peter Sullivan (Zachary Quinto), warning him to “be careful”. Puzzled by this enigmatic comment, Sullivan begins crunching numbers with the program, and late in the evening he discovers that the company is in immediate danger of becoming insolvent. Right away, he calls his fellow employee, Seth Bregman (Penn Badgley), and senior salesman, Will Emerson (Paul Bettany), who then tells the head of sales, Sam Rogers (Kevin Spacey), about this. By the early morning, a meeting has been convened with the top members of the company, including the head of risk, Sarah Robertson (Demi Moore), the head of securities, Jared Cohen (Simon Baker), and the CEO, John Tuld (Jeremy Irons). Tuld decides that the best thing they can do is sell off all of the company’s assets during the next trading day, even though this could cause a financial panic and put them out of business.

This film features fine ensemble acting. I especially liked Irons’s performance. He oozes smug complacency as he makes a decision that will ruin many people’s lives. Spacey is, as always, completely on the mark.

Margin Call quietly points out the insanity of an economic system in which bad decisions by one company can cause a global crisis. It also points out how non-productive and personally corrupting the financial system is. Rogers, for example, is strongly opposed to what the company is doing, but he ends up going along with it, because, as he explains, “I need the money”. The need for money guides the actions of all the characters in varying ways, while one gets the uncomfortable feeling that there is something lacking in their lives. In one scene, Tuld tries to console Rogers by telling him that he could have spent his life digging ditches. “If I had spent my life digging ditches, I would at least have holes in the ground to show for it,” Rogers says. This is one of the best lines I have ever heard in a movie. In another scene, Dale, a former engineer, reminisces about how he once designed a bridge. He inwardly yearns for a time when he made a positive contribution to other people’s lives. (Uh, would it be cynical to say that he wants to be “nurturing”?)

Margin Call is one of the best films of the year.

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