Thoughts on ‘Margin Call’

MARGIN CALL deals with a group of corporate risk analysts struggling to survive a particularly nasty awakening in the face of an economic quake. There is a Firm carving out a large percentage of its staff. The hierarchy is presented to us amidst a bubbling chaos. If not for the structure we’re given in the first twenty minutes of the film, we would have very little emotional connection to the characters and no real interest in the film beyond a few awesomely funny lines about people who manage money versus people who actually make the money for them. Despite the allusions to materials/evidence that isn’t ever screened and the fact that most of the audience will probably need the “plain English” translations that certain characters in the film require in order to follow along with the analysts, the audience may still connect to the stellar ensemble by reading between the lines. Based on the humor and fantastic performances, viewers will surely feel compelled to do this.

Before there are lines to read between though, there are faces: junior analysts Seth Bregman and Peter Sullivan (Penn Badgley and Zachary Quinto) wait with arms crossed, in a white collar office as a set of stern looking suits swarm the hallway. By way of their uneasy expressions, we receive the vital information we need to detect the first ring of a downward spiral: a flat eighty percent of The Firm’s risk management department is about to be fired. Not only do these hardworking people face termination, but within minutes of receiving the news, they will be completely cut off from all access to their offices and the work they might have been doing when they are called out. The decision is final, merciless, and, as it so often is in a real life setting, no one ever takes responsibility for the turmoil when confronted. Of the chosen staff, those who express until then pertinent worries are informed that matters that apply to The Firm no longer concern them. The Firm has a plan for the future and they are simply not part of it.

The connection between managers like Eric Dale (played beautifully by Stanley Tucci) being completely shut out of the work force they devoted their lives to and the proceeding string of scattered facts that guides us along through the film is a bit shady, but these facts, like the many large numbers strewn throughout the script are basically a vehicle for a timely moral expression about corporate life. Peter Sullivan receives a flash drive and a dark warning from Dale as he is escorted off the premises for good: “be careful.” Sullivan reworks the information on Dale’s unfinished project and discovers that the company has basically overrun its formula for sales and is set to crush itself with its own weight at any moment. It becomes quickly apparent that there is no pretty way out of the situation and the executives must be rounded up for a serious discussion.

For the rest of the film, everyone will fear those words “be careful,” because they represent a corporate death: the man who is kicked out after decades of service speaks to the younger worker, but there doesn’t seem to be anything behind the words other than genuine sympathy. “Be careful” and “fuck me” are probably the two most used phrases in the film, and they mean just about the same thing: someone is going down now and we all are at some point. We don’t really need to know the exact nature of the storm that’s brewing and we do not end with comraderie among the soldiers. The entire plot stems from such deep-rooted social fears of capitalism and corporate America- no one in the audience would really want to see anything more than an enormously profitable, powerful trade fortress do everything in its power to keep from crumbling in the hands of its builders, who until the last straw question the foundations of the design. More information would, absolutely, be too much.

Midway through the film there a cocky yet self-deprecating set of high-ranking characters join the mix: John Tuld (Jeremy Irons), Jared Cohen (Simon Baker), and Sam Rogers (Kevin Spacey). Tuld, the man on top, starts off jolly and simple enough- he requests to have the bad situation that brought him and his committee to headquarters in the middle of the night explained “as [Sullivan] would to a small child or a Golden Retriever.” After making fundamentally warped decisions that would effect every buying contact the company has, to save his own skin The Firm- he ends with the excuse that “money isn’t really there. It’s just paper with faces on it…” and that he and his top managers are not able to change anything, they just “react” the the happenings of a world that has always been brutal: “we just can’t help ourselves” he smirks.

Even in the case that the math speak and trade talk might have meant more to the average audience, the story is satisfyingly dependent on a series of shadowy emotionally-oriented ruminations verbalized by Tuld, Rogers, and a middle-manager named Will Emerson (Paul Bettany). The main idea is that people like the abruptly thwarted Dale and mathematically gifted Sullivan are the people who work and guys like Tuld decide who to cut loose in order to keep more of the profits. It seems like a story we have heard before, something we live with, or under, rather, and certainly something we debate as changeable or inevitably screwed. The difference between the leftist criticisms we Google and the emotionally riveting set of truisms gifted us by way of performances by Kevin Spacey, Jeremy Irons, Paul Bettany, Stanley Tucci, Zachary Quintos, is the depth of perception: media outlets are often big and biased, but writer/director JC Chandor wanted to paint one situation from the angle of a dozen complex characters. Each one has a decision to make based on whether or not they are to be punished for the incident taking place. They will be given an exorbitant sum of money and told to scatter or, on the other hand, they will be promoted, based on a skewed set of values. The Firm does not lose from the top down.

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