Set in a fictional brokerage firm in 2008 just before the housing bust, Margin Call appears to be very loosely based on Lehman Brothers (hence the boldly printed words “Inspired by a True Story” on its poster). Opening strongly, Eric Dale (Stanley Tucci) is ushered into a conference room to meet with people he has never met before who thank him for his 19 years of service to the company but he is being let go and will now be escorted to the front door by security, but really, thank you for your service. In a slight nod to the territory covered by Up in the Air, the film follows neither the nameless administrators who just did the firing or the shocked new unemployed banker. On his way out the door, Eric tosses a data stick to his young protégé Peter Sullivan (Zachary Quinto) and tells him to take a look at it and to “be careful.”
Peter is a young guy who doesn’t mind burning the midnight oil to get ahead in the firm but also has mixed feelings about the way his boss was just unceremoniously ushered out of the building. Taking a look at the date file, Peter discovers Eric was onto something big. Apparently, his firm — and all of Wall Street — is about to fall off a cliff and go bankrupt because of some newly discovered toxic assets. From following the news the last few years, the audience is well aware Peter just figured out the securities which the banking industry has been trading based on lousy home mortgages is about to send everyone to the poor house.
Peter calls his new boss Will (Paul Bettany) who call his boss Sam (Kevin Spacey) who calls his boss Jared (Simon Baker) who calls his boss John (Jeremy Irons). These higher up bosses are names Peter has only distantly heard of, the kind of bosses who do not routinely come into the office and only show up in the columns of the Wall Street Journal. Explaining over and over again what he has stumbled across is not easy for the audience to follow. The script deliberately sticks with convoluted business speak which only a skilled MBA holder would be able to follow. Even when the big boss John asks Peter to explain it to him like he is talking to a golden retriever, the explanations is still muddled and it is only because we are in 2011 instead of 2008 that we are able to kind of figure out what is going on.
Now that everyone realizes what the problem is, what will they do about it? They are the first firm on Wall Street to figure it out, but probably not for long. Enter the ethics debate and the prisoner’s dilemma. If the firm goes to the press or to the other banking firms, they will take an enormous loss along with the rest of them, maybe even going bust. If they sell all of these toxic assets the next day, they will spark a panic, an SEC investigation, and severely cripple their reputation, but they won’t go broke. However, in shoveling their junk investments to other firms, they will set their brethren up for failure.
The vast majority of all of these conversations and worried looks take place in one building from secret basement rooms to the roof. Most of the action also takes place in one night as the bosses try to balance ethics, secrets, and most of all, profits before the opening trading bell strikes. The script is sharp, but the relentless banking jargon tries one’s patience. Also, the claim that Margin Call was inspired by a true story is a pretty far reach — there was no magic moment on Wall Street when one young guy sat down and figured out the recession was going to start the next day. No firm pulled an all-nighter and sparked the crisis. Lehman Brothers had a gigantic meltdown, but it wasn’t because they stumbled onto the truth and decided to lead-turn the panic.
The greatest asset to Margin Call is its cast. It is an independent film, but you would not know that by looking at the billing. Kevin Spacey, Paul Bettany, Jeremy Irons, Zachary Quinto, and Stanley Tucci all knock it out of the park and lend a huge dramatic weight to what could have been a very dry and eye-gouging script. Demi Moore, Simon Baker, and Penn Badgley are also along for the ride but noticeably do not measure up to their peers listed above. I am not saying they deliver poor performances, but someone is going to come in second fiddle to Jeremy Irons.
I do not, however, actually recommend this film even though the cast will most likely be strong nominees for any ensemble cast award this season. The script is too cumbersome and the idea that first time film writer and director J.C. Chandor tries to play this story off as true is too unbelievable by far. When it comes to films about the downfall of the banking industry, it is best to stick with the superior documentaries such as Inside Job and Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room.