margin call (2012)director: j c chandorentertainment grade: cstory grade: b+
During the global financial crisis of September 2008, Lehman Brothers, the fourth largest bank in the United States, filed for bankruptcy.
It’s just another day in 2008 for Margin Call’s unnamed investment bank, which is based on Lehman Brothers. profits are down and 80% of the staff on the floor are being laid off. Among those eliminated is Eric Dale (Stanley Tucci), head of risk management. When a security guard ushers him out, he passes a key to his former subordinate Peter Sullivan (Zachary Fifth). “I was working on something, but they wouldn’t let me finish it,” he mutters. “beware.” Peter takes a look around and quickly realizes that an unnamed Lehman Brothers-based investment bank is so far from a certain creek that even an oar would only be useful if everyone could commit hara-kiri with it.
margin call tries to make clear the reason for the troubles at the anonymous investment bank, but every time someone starts to go into detail, it sounds like, “well sir, we’re now leveraged up to our historical equity ratio limits.” volatility, and if it crosses the currents in the flux capacitor, skynet will become self-aware at 2:14 a.m. ET.” At least, that’s what I wrote in my notes. I may have fallen asleep for a minute. So impossible is it to explain what is going on without immediately boring and confusing the audience that both Paul Bettany and Kevin Spacey have to ask Peter to explain it “in English”. They finally summon the big boss, John Tuld (Jeremy Irons), whose name hints he may be based on real-life former Lehman CEO Dick Fuld. “He talks like you would a little kid,” Tuld tells Peter. “or like you would a golden retriever.” Unfortunately, it turns out that even in front of a golden retriever, Peter was complaining about things like trading security, product layering, and market capitalization. he maybe he is a cat lover.
perhaps no feature film can hope to convey what happened at lehman brothers, which was complex enough to fill nine volumes of a court examiner’s report in 2010. the margin call succeeds in conveying that an anonymous investment bank has bought too many of the subprime mortgage assets and those have now turned out to be toxic, but they downplay the crisis in the rest of the banking sector at the time. the human drama never reaches the high pitch it needs, considering this film has no sex, no violence, no explosions, and no velociraptors, though just a couple of them thrown into the boardroom would have really livened things up. it’s just a bunch of obscenely rich people standing around wearing suits, looking mildly unhappy that they just broke the world. historically speaking, of course, this is realistic.
Most business movies don’t work, and the few that do have witty dialogue and characters you care about. the margin call has none. the ensemble cast, while fantastically talented, are used to modest effect. John Tuld is never allowed to be as scary as Dick Fuld in real life, a man known as “The Wall Street Gorilla.” Neither of the whistleblowers, Eric and Peter, get enough screen time to carry the movie as a hero. kevin spacey’s character, operating room chief sam rogers, almost becomes heroic, but he spends much of the movie depressed about his chocolate labrador (no, not a golden retriever), who is slowly dying of an incurable cancer. it’s best not to look too closely at this story in case the plowman turns out to be less of a faithful hound, more of a clumsy metaphor for capitalism. again, it’s realistic for everyone in the movie to be a bit desperate rather than a full-fledged hero or villain, but the people who are a bit desperate aren’t that exciting to watch.
If you can make a great movie about the global financial crisis, the margin call isn’t.