Margin Call is a night in the life of a group of poor schmucks who work at multi-billion dollar investment firm. Set in the early stages of the 2008 crisis, the film revolves around the events following the discovery of an error in a predictive algorithm (or whatever) the company has been using to package stocks to trade as a single entity (or something).
We enter the film on a downsizing day, and one of the bigger fish in the companies risk management division, Eric Dale (Stanley Tucci) is being let go, along with most of the people who work on his floor. On his way out, he hands a flash drive to a young hotshot at the firm, Peter Sullivan (Zachary Quinto), and tells him to take a look at it. It’s something he’s been working on, but the firm won’t let him finish it. He also tells him to be careful.
It’s just another day at the office for those who are left, or so says the head of the department, Sam Rogers (Kevin Spacey). In fact, he takes it as a point of encouragement, because if you’re still here, then are a lot less people in your way as you try to move up.
When everyone else leaves, Peter is too intrigued by the flash drive and the ominous message to leave it alone, and he stays late to see what Eric was so interested in. It’s apparently an analysis of the numbers game the firm is running with a lot of their investments, and after fidgeting with the work Eric had started, he discovers that there is a flaw in the firm’s risk assessment of their stock bundles. In fact, the error hidden at the heart of all those numbers swimming around is so big that a minor fluctuation in the market could leave the firm with losses greater than the entire value of the company.
Peter has no idea what to do, and we see the panic race up the food chain, as Peter calls in his boss, Will Emerson (Paul Bettany), who calls in his boss, Sam, who calls in his boss, Jared Cohen (Simon Baker), and we eventually get to the King, John Tuld (Jeremy Irons). The race is on now, because Peter made his discovery at around 11:00 pm, it takes time to circle the wagons, and something better be set to happen by opening bell tomorrow. To make matters worse, no one can find Eric Dale, and they’d like his insights.
In roughly eight hours, the whole world will change, and a small group of people have to decide how they’re going to handle things. There’s a trillion dollars at stake, and the firm wants to still exist at the end of the day.
While the tension plays out well, and the cast is superb, there’s something about the film’s entry to the drama that many will find strangely hollow. It eventually becomes worth watching based on this fact alone, but perhaps in a way more related to film class than entertainment. I imagine many will succumb to the intrigue of a behind-the-scenes look at a powerhouse investment firm at a time when things have gone horribly wrong, but the average audience member is apt to wonder how he is meant to invest (ha).
The firm has few options as it sees its demise not only looming, but short hours away, and one of those options is to dump as much as it can of something that is basically worthless. It looks to have a lot of value on paper, but whoever they can get to buy it is going to lose big. Better him than me. Of course, the firm is going to take a major hit even going this route, but not so much that they won’t pull through. There are other options, naturally, but they aren’t very appealing, and for all that they may be the “right” way to go, it’s hard to see how to get them to come to fruition right now.
Thus, players in a vast hierarchy have to find what side they’re on, and how they are going to play things themselves. Each rung on this firm’s ladder is its own universe, and knowing who has your back is as tricky as predicting the market. After all, 80% of the people you worked with personally were sent home earlier today, and that was before anyone knew about this problem.
But, as we watch the “entry level” players talk about making around a quarter of a million last year, and his boss reveal his expenditure list that ate up his more than 2 million, and we wonder what his boss makes, despite talking about needing the money, do we really care?
That’s a difficult question to deal with in this case, because the film is so focused on laying out the life, and the inner workings of the firm, that it doesn’t spare a lot of effort making sure audiences have something to really lure them in. Everything plays as though riddled with tension, as we would expect, because the characters are certainly rather nervous, but it never becomes a tension that includes the viewer. It’s the common problem with films focusing on characters that aren’t especially likable, and this time around there isn’t much to captivate. That’s a shame really, because the actors are giving great turns here, and it might easily have been a memorable work just for the ensemble effort.
Margin Call stars Kevin Spacey, Paul Bettany, Jeremy Irons, Zachary Quinto, Penn Badgley, Simon Baker and Mary McDonnell with Demi Moore and Stanley Tucci. The film was written and directed by J.C. Chandor.