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The Occupy Wall Street protesters should set up a projector and have an outdoor screening of Margin Call. It’s a movie for our times — it’s about the beginning of the recession in 2008. The fictionalized account condenses events to a single day and night whereas the recession took weeks or months to unfold. Nevertheless, it’s an interesting interpretation of what went wrong.

Presumably the film is about Lehman Brothers, but it could be about Countrywide or any other notorious packager of bad mortgages. The movie focuses not so much on the wonkish details of financial collapse, but on the personalities involved.

Middle Management

Spacey's character does have ethical boundaries... eventually
Spacey’s character does have ethical boundaries... eventually

Stanley Tucci plays a smart analyst who notices that his company is overleveraged — which is okay when you’re on the right side of the lever, but can be disastrous should the directions change. We are introduced to him at the moment he gets laid off from his job. We don’t yet know what he knows about his company, but we know he carefully passes some information to one of his underlings who survived the layoff.

Kevin Spacey is one box up on the org chart; he’s not an analyst but a salesman — specifically the leader of the team of salesmen who buy and sell securities. ( What to buy and sell comes from even higher up.) Spacey’s character is ruthless — he leads a round of applause among those who didn’t get laid off, congratulations for surviving the Darwinian cull of underperformers — yet by the end reveals the boundaries of his code of ethics — yes, he has ethical impulses and the movie gives him time to explain them pretty well. He looks after his dying dog which might just be a metaphor for his employer or indeed the whole economy.

At the end, he and two other characters explain how a choice between huge amounts of money and unemployment is really no choice at all. I’m not sure I agree with that sentiment, but it is a compelling argument. Margin Call challenges him who is without greed to cast the first stone.

Whiz Kids

Paul Bettany plays a macho, dick-measuring office worker with ambitions on the positions above him and cautious disdain for those below. He’s definitely in his job for the money. If anyone in the film comes close to being a selfish bastard it is his character, although it’s hard to condemn even him, as insecure and inconsequential as he is.

Zachary Quinto plays the young but promising trader, second box from the bottom of the org chart. He has a PhD in math and engineering — “a rocket scientist” as his bosses sum up — who came to the firm because the math is the same and frankly the money is way better. He’s perhaps the most na├»ve character, the most blameless, the rooting interest for the audience (Occupy protesters included). He’s not yet jaded or tainted like the careerists played by Bettany and Spacey. He’s also the character who can explain the technical details to the audience.

Speaking of explaining technical details, it’s almost a running gag that the higher up a character is in the org chart, the more likely they are to ask the techies to dumb it down — not accurate in my experience at a financial reporting company, but necessary for the sake of the audience. The top executive (a bit of stunt casting I won’t reveal here) asks for an explanation suitable “for a small child or a golden retriever.” For my tastes, the movie could have used bigger words and more details, but at least the explanation is not insultingly dumbed-down. Rather than sink lower, the traders speak in technical-sounding ellipses that sound plausible without carrying any facts (see also Primer). Credit freshman writer/director J.C. Chandor for finding a good balance.

Also in the film are a low-level trader has little to do except stand in awe of the salaries of his superiors. Demi Moore and Simon Baker play lawyers brought in to help explain the ramifications of the problem and its painful solution.


The problem? That it takes a month to package mortgages into tradable securities, yet if housing prices go down, suddenly and steeply, nobody will buy the securities. And if the company’s creditors make a margin call — ask them to cover the dwindling value of their virtual assets with cash — the company will not be able to pay, even if they sell everything they own.

Margin Call does a very good job at translating the story of a generation — the financial meltdown — into human emotions. Greed and fear, of course, play a big part. But Tucci displays regret, pride, and a desire to contribute. He has my favorite speech in the film, about a previous job that had nothing to do with finance and which was much more rewarding. Spacey’s character shows integrity, loyalty, duty, and shame. Even the top-level executive, the man directing the possible destruction of an economy for the chance at personal survival, is not evil. He’s not necessarily even sociopathic — just a man who sees winners and losers throughout history, and chooses to survive himself, even if it means kicking a grenade into a crowd rather than falling on it himself.

Margin Call paints the collapse of the housing bubble as a tragic event larger than any single person, but nevertheless caused by people caught up in an industry that rewards amoral — if not immoral — tendencies. It offers no excuses, but no unfair vilification either.

Made on a shoestring and set in just a few locations, Margin Call is a strong film that could have been staged as a play. It could have been a bit stronger if it were just a bit shorter. I felt an ending about three times, and only the last one actually ended the movie. Still, it’s as timely a movie as you’re likely to find. It probably takes many liberties, but it humanizes the cause of the recession as only the dramatic arts can. Here’s hoping that it — along with those Occupy Wall Street protestors — will do this country a small measure of good.