Dead Men Walking

‘Margin Call’

Last year, at a college reunion, I attended a panel on the financial meltdown featuring three classmates with long careers on Wall Street. Expecting a frank discussion of the calamity, I was startled to hear a round of breathless stories along the lines of “Where I was when Lehman fell.” Didn’t these guys understand that for the rest of us, the fall of Lehman Bros. was not the Kennedy assassination or the moon landing? And that to speak of it in this jocular, almost nostalgic way—seemingly free of a sense of gravity, let alone complicity—might rankle those of us not spending our lives in “financial services”?

J. C. Chandor’s impressive debut film, Margin Call, exploits the gap between these two perspectives, showing us the investment-banking bubble through the eyes of the lavishly paid insiders who were its engineers and beneficiaries. Set within the trading halls and conference rooms of a Lehman-like investment house, the film covers a swiftly unfolding crisis that begins when a junior analyst named Peter Sullivan (Zachary Quinto) spends some after-work hours checking out a flash drive that his boss, Eric Dale (Stanley Tucci)—fired that day in a round of cost-cutting layoffs—handed him on his way out. A physicist with a PhD, precisely the kind of intellectual whiz kid Wall Street has been luring away from science for the past three decades, Peter churns away into the evening at his computer, only to discover by midnight that the firm’s balance sheet is gravely out of whack.

The looming disaster, like the one that beset Lehman, arises from the huge load of securitized mortgages the company is holding. Add a perilously high debt-to-assets ratio, a volatile market, and a growing public recognition that such securities are unsound, and you have a financial perfect storm. Peter calculates that even a slight further downtick in the value of the highly leveraged securities will ramify wildly; indeed, if it decreases by another 25 percent, the company will face losses greater than its entire worth. In other words, it will be broke. The rest of the movie, playing out over one excruciatingly tense night, follows this dire news upward through the firm’s hierarchy—a pulse of alarm that builds into a tsunami of panic, fear, and recrimination.

A “margin call” refers to a lender’s demand for additional funds when securities bought on borrowed money decline in value, and Chandor uses it as a coolly ironic way of saying “The Chickens Have Come Home to Roost.” But Margin Call skips the financial fine print of the disaster and focuses instead on the drama of higher-ups in the firm’s chain of command. These are men who at some level knew that the question was not whether the bubble would burst, but when. Like the shoddy loans it was built on, the Wall Street boom could function only as long as rampant optimism ruled. Chandor takes up the game just as the music is about to stop, and shows us the ugly scramble to avoid being left without a chair.

Unlike last year’s documentary Inside Job, which insisted that the meltdown was not mere irresponsibility, but larceny and fraud, Margin Call is agnostic on the smoking-gun question of whether your typical Goldman partner knew he was running a glorified Ponzi scheme. Yet the film’s portrayal of arrogance, willful self-delusion, and a corporate culture of soulless venality is damning enough. There are villains here, notably Jeremy Irons as CEO John Tuld (a thinly-veiled Dick Fuld of Lehman), exuding reptilian evil as he plots to shovel “the greatest pile of odiferous excrement in the history of capitalism” onto unwitting counterparties during tomorrow’s trading. But Chandor is more interested in more ambiguous figures, such as Sam Rogers (Kevin Spacey), head of the firm’s sales team. A company lifer, by no means sentimental about business ethics, Rogers nonetheless blanches at the thought of the selloff—the massive deceit it represents, the widespread damage it will wreak, and the smoking ruins it will make of his traders’ long-cultivated relationships. Tuld, however, wields a pretty big stick and a truly whopping amount of carrot, and the next morning Rogers duly sends his sales troops out to unload the firm’s soon-to-be-worthless securities in a mammoth toxic fire sale.

Margin Call is a film about elitism that works, aptly enough, through ruthless exclusion—a terse, stripped-down film about terse and stripped-down people. Chandor rarely lets us out beyond the claustrophobic confines of the firm, its offices, and its exceedingly narrow view of life. He lets us look out, though. The film opens to a time-lapse view of a day in Manhattan seen from atop a midtown building; the panorama of antlike humans and vehicles far below, and the sun racing westward above, plays to a background clamor of shouting traders and finally the closing bell—as if nothing exists but the hubbub of money-making and a prince’s regal view of empire. Dizzying views from corporate towers are everywhere in the movie, both awesome and scary, implying lives lived between regal exaltation and the omnipresent chance of a fall.

Chandor’s father spent his career as an executive at Merrill Lynch, and the son bestows on Wall Street’s money soldiers a mix of sympathy, pity, and harsh judgment. He catches their near-complete self-enclosure, an alienation from civilian life that verges into contempt. “Look at these people,” muses Peter, looking out a cab window at pedestrians in midtown, “wandering around with absolutely no idea what’s about to happen.” There’s an amazing scene in which two of Tuld’s lieutenants (played by Demi Moore and the insuperably slimy Simon Baker) emerge from a rancorous 2 a.m. emergency meeting and enter an elevator, taking positions on either side of a night cleaning lady. Moore and Baker glance at the woman, quickly decide she doesn’t matter—and resume talking about the coming calamity. The scene is so brazen that it teeters on comedy, even as it fashions a damning metaphor for the rude realities of class in America.

Line by line the writing in Margin Call isn’t sensational, yet Chandor scores points through scenes that are compellingly realistic even as they suggest larger tropes for American social and moral pathology. At the heart of what his film lays bare is a rampant obsession with money. To Peter and Seth, the compensation packages of their superiors are a matter of constant speculation and awed gossip. “Do you think it’s right that he makes that much?” Peter asks when Seth claims that one midlevel manager takes home $3 million a year. “Right?” Seth muses. “Right is… right is...” Baffled, he drifts off into silence. Later, when the two trade rumors of Tuld’s stock options, said to be worth hundreds of millions, and agree that “it’s fucked up,” we understand this to mean, simultaneously, “something’s badly askew with it” and “it’s amazing and I wish I had it.” Chandor captures the way even language itself has been deformed for a whole generation raised amid the Wall Street spree. 

Other deformations are not so subtle. At every critical turn in Margin Call, employees facing a moral choice are bought off with huge sums. There’s Tucci’s character, first fired, then hauled back in and offered $1 million simply to stay at the office for one day and not spread word about the selloff; and Rogers (we don’t even get to see the number on the paper Irons hands him); and the traders themselves, rewarded with $2.5 million—each—for unloading all their toxic assets in one day. This is corruption so vast that “moral hazard” doesn’t begin to do it justice. Moral calamity would be more accurate. 

And that has its cost. The closest thing to a moving moment in the film occurs near the end, when Tucci’s character waxes wistful about his short-lived career as an engineer, decades ago, and the one bridge he built—a solid, substantial, real thing. Sam Rogers, meanwhile, grieves a dying family dog excessively, as if to pack a whole lifetime of missed emotion into that one loss. But such gestures constitute little more than belated and maudlin stabs at feeling by men who long ago embraced other priorities. They’ve been bought, and their capacity for life beyond the drama of getting has been hopelessly stunted in the bargain. Chandor’s deft, depressing film takes us deep inside a system where ambition is rewarded in treasure, and paid for in regret and self-loathing.

Published in the 2011-12-02 issue: 

Rand Richards Cooper is a contributing editor to Commonweal. His fiction has appeared in Harper’s, GQ, Esquire, the Atlantic, and many other magazines, as well as in Best American Short Stories. His novel, The Last to Go, was produced for television by ABC, and he has been a writer-in-residence at Amherst and Emerson colleges. 

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