Welcome to the latest in our recurring series here at the Outpost, The Overlooked. Here we take a second look at movies that came and went without getting the recognition, at the time, they probably deserved. This time, Margin Call.
Margin Call takes us back to the heady days of the 2008 worldwide financial crisis, where the entire global financial system came within hours of collapse as liquidity dried up in the markets. This was a result of governments failing to regulate, encouraging sub-prime lending on mortgages, then completely ignoring warnings about what was coming. Add to this financial services companies who thought they had cracked the code of ever-lasting growth and effectively “free money” through questionable investment vehicles, failing to consider risk and rewarding completely based on returns, and the ticking timebomb was set.
Made in 2011, Margin Call was the directorial debut of J. C. Chandor. His body of work is now building impressively with All Is Lost (2013), A Most Violent Year (2014), and Triple Frontier (2019). Let us hope the curse of SPUMC does not Morbius all over him when he directs Kraven The Hunter for release next year.
It was made on the tiny budget of $3.5 million which is absolutely staggering considering the cast on display. That cast, without exception, give truly excellent performances. The title comes from a finance term for when an investor must pay back borrowed funds that they traded with, as per the climax of Trading Places.
While the movie grossed just $5.4 million, this was from a very limited release in 199 theatres. This movie was the day-and-date pioneer, being released for VOD sales at the same time, where it pulled in over $10 million. It deserved far more because it is, hands down, one of the best financial movies of all time.
The story begins in 2008 as some market turmoil means an unnamed investment bank begins lay-offs in that brutal way such institutions do. A tap on the shoulder with no warning upon arrival at work, and its time to pack your stuff into a box and walk while the firm turns off your cellphone.
Among those released is Eric Dale (Stanley Tucci), head of risk management. He has been concerned about some underlying risk in the bank’s portfolio and has been working on a model. His warnings are ignored as he is ushered from the building. His last act is to hand a flash drive to his subordinate in the risk department, Peter Sullivan (Zachary Quinto) with the warning “Be careful!”
An intrigued Sullivan works after hours to complete Dale’s model. Horrified, and terrified, at what he discovers about potential exposure deep in the firms sub-prime lending book, he summons his colleague Seth Bregman (Penn Bagley) back to the office, along with head of credit trading Will Emerson (Paul Bettany).
The story then plays out over the course of one night and the following day, as the true potential of what is about to come in the world of finance dawns on various people at the firm as they get pulled back in to emergency meetings. First trading director Sam Rogers (Kevin Spacey) and then divisional head Jared Cohen (Simon Baker) find themselves pulled into the unfolding situation, along with chief risk management officer Sarah Robertson (Demi Moore).
As they all confirm that Sullivan’s adaption of Dale’s risk model is terrifyingly accurate, it all builds to a crash board meeting in the early hours of the morning. Here we see a powerhouse performance from Jeremy Irons as group CEO John Tuld, who demands action to save the firm, and a day of unprecedented fire-sale trading takes shape.
“There are three ways to make a living in this business: be first, be smarter, or cheat.”
Irons really is the MVP here. In his few scenes he carries such incredible presence and convinces utterly as a Master Of The Universe who readily admits it wasn’t brains that got him where he is today, rather a ruthless cunning.
As the dust settles, it is left to Tuld to sum the whole thing up with weary, depressing accuracy as he outlines that nobody will learn anything, and the wheel just keeps turning:
“So you think we might have put a few people out of business today. That its all for naught. You’ve been doing that everyday for almost forty years Sam. And if this is all for naught then so is everything out there.
Its just money; its made up. Pieces of paper with pictures on it so we don’t have to kill each other just to get something to eat. It’s not wrong. And it’s certainly no different today than its ever been. 1637, 1797, 1819, 37, 57, 84, 1901, 07, 29, 1937, 1974, 1987-Jesus, didn’t that fuck up me up good-92, 97, 2000 and whatever we want to call this. It’s all just the same thing over and over; we can’t help ourselves.
And you and I can’t control it, or stop it, or even slow it. Or even ever-so-slightly alter it. We just react. And we make a lot money if we get it right. And we get left by the side of the side of the road if we get it wrong. And there have always been and there always will be the same percentage of winners and losers. Happy fucks and sad sacks. Fat cats and starving dogs in this world. Yeah, there may be more of us today than there’s ever been. But the percentages-they stay exactly the same.”
What is truly staggering about this movie is that it is genuinely very little other than people talking in offices, yet it remains absolutely gripping.
It is like a play, rather than a movie. The whole thing is carried completely on the backs of that incredibly strong cast and they all deliver. There is no dead wood here. As the story progresses, the layer-by-layer escalation of the issue right to the very top is an accurate portrayal of corporate life, as each highly rewarded layer of executives realises this is way, way beyond their comfort zone.
The only soundtrack is the eerie quiet of an overnight office, and the relentless drone of the air conditioning. The movie was shot in days from June 21st, 2010, in New York City. More than 80% of the footage was shot on the 42nd floor of One Penn Plaza, which had ironically recently been vacated by a trading firm.
People who have seen Margin Call, rate it. It is like a little kept secret between us. When it is mentioned between movie fans, a knowing nod is exchanged. Sure, Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps and, especially, The Big Short get all the plaudits or generated all the noise at the time.
Margin Call is simply better than both of them in every way. If The Big Short, with it’s celebrity cutaways to explain complicated financial systems to the uninitiated, was a financial movie for normies and children, this is a show for grown-ups and it makes no apologies about it. Everything you need to know is laid out in the dialogue but it is up to you to follow along, as the characters in the movie do.
A Rotten Tomatoes approval rating of 87% delivers the consensus:
“Smart, tightly wound, and solidly acted, Margin Call turns the convoluted financial meltdown of ’08 into gripping, thought-provoking drama.”
The New Yorker film critic David Denby agrees with our point of view, labelling it:
“…easily the best Wall Street movie ever made”
There simply is no way to really argue with that. If you have seen it, watch it again. You will find it keeps rewarding you. If you haven’t seen it yet, watch it as soon as possible. It is available on various streamers. But be warned, send the kids to bed and banish a smartphone browsing, non-attention paying partner from the room. Open a bottle of something decent and give it your full attention.
It will reward you every step of the way.