Margin Call

David Denby, writing for New Yorker Magazine has labeled J. C. Chandor’s debut film, Margin Call, “… one of the strongest American films of the year and easily the best Wall Street movie ever made.” High praise indeed from one of the most widely read and esteemed film critics. Yet this film opened today in what was called a ‘limited release’.

That would mean that this film is opening in just 17 states, and here in Florida, the film is playing in just one theater, in the entire state, in a town called Maitland, somewhere northeast of Orlando. Google says it is 138 miles from my home. With gas prices hovering around 3.50 a gallon, driving that far and back to see the film would add about $50 to the cost of my ticket.

Think about that – just one theater in the entire state of Florida and playing in just 17 states. Well, the good news is that the film is quite good. The bad news is you might have to wait awhile to see it. Unless you have ‘on-demand’ via your cable provider.

I think the producers are going to have more copies of the film made and distributed. On the other hand. maybe folks won’t be all that interested in seeing what happened to their retirement nest eggs, which vanished overnight in some cases. But I won’t spend any more time discussing the harsh realities stemming from the events of the market crash in 2008, because we all know or knew someone, or we were/are actually victims ourselves. So let’s not talk about what happened in real life, instead let’s talk about the film.

I think the best way to discuss the film is to describe some of the performances by the actors, and even more importantly to describe what it was like to watch the film. Shortly after the film begins we are told that 80% of the traders and their support staffs, in an unnamed financial services firm, are going to be let go that day. Grim and stony-faced HR folks march in and set up in a conference room. People are asked to come in. They’re given the bad news, along with the size and the amounts of their severance packages, and this gentleman – they point to a security person – will escort you to your office where you will leave everything as is taking only your personal belongings. Which leads to the long and cruel walk to the elevators with your boxed possessions. This is the beginning of the film, and from there – it only gets worse.

I personally have seen what I just described in person – but when you watch it in Margin Call, from the safety of your own den, living room, or theater seat, you will be thankful that you are safely distanced from the what you are watching. Then again you may not be safe at all. But while watching, I felt as if I dare not blink or close my eyes – lest I miss something.

Stanley Tucci as Eric Dale, is one of the first to go. He’s a sympathetic figure as a mid-level manager handling risk assessment. He receives his bad news with a certain stoicism, but you know from the gravitas of his facial expressions that this is serious stuff for him. He’s been in the business 19 years. When he hits the street and stops for a moment to call home – he finds that the cell phone (provided by the firm) no longer works.

They had told him as much upstairs – no computer access, no emails, no phones – but he had forgotten. It was a startling and electrifying change of mood, when he hurled his phone to the sidewalk in frustration – all the more remarkable because of his previously shown calmness and strength when he was told to pack up and leave.

Dale’s boss, Will Emerson (played by Paul Bettany) has survived. We aren’t quite sure of what he does, but he was Dale’s boss, and now two of the younger risk analysts that reported to Dale now report to him. He makes big bucks, drives an Aston-Martin, and wears a rich navy blue suit. As portrayed by Bettany, he comes off as a guy who likes living on the edge, someone who never met a party he wouldn’t go to, and he was something of a player who later confesses that he made 2.5 million in the previous year. And out of that he spent more than 75K on hookers and drinking. Yet Bettany (below) gives him a decency that makes you respect him if not actually like him.

Kevin Spacey portrays Sam Rogers. He’s the head of Trading for the firm. He’s an inspirational leader who knows how to rally the troops. Under his guidance, his traders can sell almost anything, and we’ll come to find out that selling anything will also mean selling worthless junk. Sam has successfully navigated the deep waters of this financial firm for 34 years. He’s situated so far up the chain of command that he can call the guy at the very top by his first name.

Spacey’s Sam is the most human and decent of all the players in this drama. Sure he’s flawed, and he’s ruthless, and his ability to motivate his boys, the traders, is spell binding. He’s also a guy who in the midst of all this chaos is strongly feeling the imminent loss of his dog. But when the chips are down, and the decision are made, he’s the one who says the film’s most potent and memorable line – Remember this day boys, … remember this day.

Baker as Jared Cohen - that's not fear on his face - he's just contemplating his next move ...

Above Sam are Simon Baker as the boy-wonder, Jared Cohen, and Demi Moore as Sarah Robertson who is something of the architect or product manager who created these financial instruments. Cohen is cold and calculating. You hate him on first sight because he’s disrespectful to everyone, throws his weight around, and when he’s not bullying someone, he’s berating someone else. He’s the obvious shark swimming in this corporate sea. As portrayed by Simon Baker who is on tv starring as The Mentalist, he’s immediately identifiable as no one’s friend or ally. Baker was superb in this role – he’s much to good looking to play a villain, and that was the beauty of his performance.

Speaking of beauties – Demi Moore – is the lead female in the film. Her role isn’t big, but she’s a major player in the design and development of the Mortgage Backed Investment vehicles. She not only has the ear of Tucci’s Dale, Spacey’s Rogers, and Baker’s Cohen – but she also works hand in hand with Jeremy Irons who plays the CEO, John Tuld. But despite her position in the corridors of power, she’s not going to come out of this unscathed. Tuld tells her that it is her head, that’s going to be served up as the sacrificial lamb to the Board of Directors. It is a testament to Moore as an actress, and Chandor as a director and author of the screenplay, that they made that scene between her and Tuld work so well.

That brings us to Jeremy Irons as the firm’s CEO, John Tuld. He took home 87 million in the previous year. That’s an obscene amount of money, which he gets by being the one to make the decisions. In the film’s most chilling scene – Tuld tells the big boys that the way to make money in this business was to be the first, be the smartest, or to cheat. His game plan is to get out from under this soon to be historic market collapse by clearing all of the firm’s holdings in that noxious and worthless junk known as the Mortgage Backed securities – by selling the entire inventory to everyone and anyone. All of it must be sold by tomorrow.

When Spacey’s Rogers stands up and says – “Do you understand that if we sell this stuff, we will never be able to sell anything to anyone ever again. Do you understand that you will be killing the market for years. It’s over. And you’re selling something you know has no value…”

Tuld says, “Do you?  This is it. We are selling to willing buyers at the current fair market price, so that we … may … survive!!!” 

That sequence was in the trailer, and I think that was a major mistake in the marketing of this film. Tuld’s decision was going to wipe out trillions, and in his icy way, Tuld told us that he didn’t care. That Wall street was just cycles of success and failures, and that they’d all be back to enjoy many more spoils later on. As he was saying this you felt that Irons was so cold and calculating – that he wasn’t human, that you felt like tossing him out of a window.

Or when Sam confronts Tuld in the corporate dining room – you wanted him to gut Tuld with the very steak knife he was using to carve his dinner with. Irons will certainly get an Oscar nomination for this role. Some say it is easy to play a villain – the audience will hate you on sight simply for what you do or what you say. Yes, that may be true, but Irons was so controlled and fierce – all without having to resort to any villainous flourishes. He carried no visible weapons other than his glare. He hadn’t any fangs, or claws, but he was as scary as any other monster that you had ever seen in the movies before.

At the end of the day, when trillions had evaporated into thin air, when thousands and thousands were suddenly unemployed, and untold millions of folks had seen the brokerage accounts destroyed, Tuld said his piece, had a show down with Spacey’s Rogers, and then quite likely went to the top of the building where he would board a helicopter to take him where ever he needed to be.

While the financial community lay smoldering, Tuld or his like in real life, boarded a chopper, his clothing still as neat as a pin and headed home without a care.

Chandor’s film is a powerful reminder to us all – that nothing is certain, and to have told such a dark story, and have we in the audience, glad for having seen the film – really tells you how good this film was.

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