The film begins with a focus on two junior employees in the risk management department, Zachary Quinto and Penn Badgley. They witness a massive layoff on their floor that includes their boss, Stanley Tucci. Following him to the elevators, Quinto is emotional, but Tucci shrugs him off and instead gives him a thumb-drive with a project he’d been working on. Quinto investigates into the night and discovers something that imperils the firm’s existence.
Quinto calls back Badgley and their superior, Paul Bettany. For the rest of the night Quinto’s discovery is kicked up the chain, to Kevin Spacey, head of sales, to Demi Moore, head of risk management, then Simon Baker, head of securities. The import of what’s happening is so great that something needs to be done before the market opens, so the firm’s CEO, Jeremy Irons, arrives like some god in a helicopter.
As to what the crisis is, Chandor takes great pains to try to explain it. In fact, three times characters ask to have it explained to them in “English.” Irons, finally, asks Quinto to explain it to him as if he “were a small child, or a golden retriever.” Basically, the firm has included, in bundled securities, assets that exceed their volatility measures. If the stock drops by a certain amount, the firm is so leveraged that the loss will exceed the capital value of the company. I’m not even sure of what I’ve just written, but I don’t think it’s important to understand the nuts and bolts of it. What’s important to know is that the firm is in danger of complete destruction.
Irons’ solution is to sell off the toxic asset in a fire sale, even at a loss, knowing that he will endanger the firm’s trustworthiness and throw the market into turmoil. His only concern is getting out with his skin, unconcerned with what it does to the little guy. Spacey, who has worked for the firm for 34 years, has reservations, but Irons responds with a speech that one-ups Michael Douglas’ “greed” speech in Wall Street. “It’s just money, it’s all made up, it’s pieces of paper with pictures on them, so we can get something to eat without killing each other.” Irons says that ups and downs in the economy are part of some sort of natural cycle, and if people are put out of business, oh well.
This is an astonishingly self-assured debut by Chandor. In some ways it reminded me of Glengarry Glen Ross, in that is has a stagey quality (it could have been, with some minor tweaks, a play) but also because of it’s “lift the rock” look at the way things work in America. These are the people who control our lives, but they are people, and they make mistakes.
The acting is uniformly excellent. Badgley and Quinto are both very good (Quinto is one of the producers). Badgeley is the guy who wonders how much money everyone is making, while Quinto is literally a rocket science who has been wooed by the promise of big money. Bettany is a survivor, cogniscent of his own flaws (he pointedly chews Nicoret through most of the film), and Spacey is remarkable as the conscience of the film. Spacey has been coasting since his best work of the ’90s, usually being the Christmas ham in any film he’s in, and usually playing some kind of villain, best exemplified by his recent role in Horrible Bosses. But here he plays a fully rounded character, toning down his knowledge of his own wonderfulness as an actor.
Chandor also shows a good eye for images. I was particularly impressed with a scene between Baker and Moore in an elevator. In between them stands a diminutive cleaning woman, but they are largely oblivious of her and she of them, sort of like how these Wall Street folks don’t care that what they do affects the little guy. The cleaning crew, in fact, are the only appearances that “regular” people make in the film. When Quinto, Badgley, and Bettany go to the roof of the building to look out over the city, they don’t see the people down below, just the lights. The film ends with a character literally digging a hole, and as the screen goes black and the credits roll, the digging can still be heard.
One thing that did not ring true: Tucci is escorted out of the building by security after his layoff, his computer and cell phone shut off. There’s no way he would be able to hand a thumb-drive to Quinto without security confiscating it. Of course, without that, there’s no movie.
My grade for Margin Call: A-.