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Margin Call

A 2011 film written and directed by J.C. Chandor

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An American Tragedy

  • Oct 28, 2011
Star Rating:

During the final months of 2008, most of us bore witness to a chain reaction of financial ruin. Investment firms across the country, seemingly strong, had to declare bankruptcy due mostly to the housing bubble collapse and the subsequent loss of value in real estate pricing. This brought about a shift in the economic structure so drastic, it required nothing less than a congressional bailout. It’s this backdrop against which Margin Call weaves a cold and devastating yet highly compelling tale. By having it take place almost entirely within the walls of a New York investment firm, and by having the characters speak nearly indecipherable financial lingo, writer/director J.C. Chandor does something rather interesting: He completely immerses the audience in the panic and confusion of the period. To make us understand what’s actually being said is not the point.
As the film begins, the firm, which is unnamed but is said to be loosely based on Lehman Brothers, has just seen 80% of its employees laid off. One of the casualties is Eric Dale (Stanley Tucci), the company’s senior risk analyst; his opening scene, in which he’s fired by a team that fires people for a living, is eerily reminiscent of Up in the Air, and about as equally timely. Just before he leaves, he hands a USB drive to a young analyst named Peter Sullivan (Zachary Quinto) – who, for now at least, is still an employee – and instructs him (1) to analyze the data and see if he can finish what was started, and (2) to be careful. Later that night, when many of the employees are out at a bar, Peter plugs in the drive, takes one look at his computer screen, and is immediately disturbed by what he finds. He calls a fellow analyst, Seth (Penn Badgley), who then contacts their supervisor, Will (Paul Bettany), who in turn contacts his boss, Sam (Kevin Spacey). They come back to the office. They too are shocked.

What exactly is on that computer screen? We don’t physically see the data, but we do hear a lot of complicated fiscal jargon attempting to make sense of it. It essentially boils down to this: Their firm, as well as the entire market, is headed for disaster. The rest of the film depicts an emergency meeting at the office, one that will last the entire night. Other employees, including the easily mocked Jared Cohen (Simon Baker) and a senior executive named Sarah Robertson (Demi Moore), analyze the data as completed by Peter – and of course, they come to the same inescapable conclusions. The early morning hours will see the arrival of the firm’s CEO via helicopter. This would be John Tuld (Jeremy Irons), who likes to speak in condescending simple terms and insists on those around him doing the same. This includes Peter, who was literally a rocket scientist at one point in his life.
All throughout, most of the characters are defined by intriguing personality quirks. Seth, for example, enjoys speculating on the salaries of his superiors. He doesn’t always wait for the right moment to start talking, either. Will, who alternates between smoking and anxiously chewing on pieces of nicotine gum, doesn’t seem to care how off-putting his cynicism has made him. Funny, how you can grow so weary of the system and yet remain so comfortable in the lifestyle it has afforded you. In one scene on the firm’s rooftop – after briefly leaning over the railing and noting that it’s not about the fear of falling, but about the possibility that you’ll actually jump – he explains to Seth and Peter how easily a $2 million salary can be whittled down to just over $100,000. That figure, I guess, is the wealthy man’s version of the poverty line.

All the characters are nicely developed, but not in any usual way. We’re not made to sympathize with them. I would wager that most of them are not, properly speaking, even human beings. They’re motivated not by public service or even by emotions, but by an instinctual need to keep their company afloat. Irons’ character takes a disturbingly Darwinian approach to the problem: The firm will sell off their holdings before the buyers realize they have no value. It’s not about loyalty to customers; it’s simply about survival. The really sad thing is not that he proposed such an idea, but that everyone was resigned to it happening. A scene late in the film, a conversation between Tucci and Moore, is shockingly matter of fact in this regard.
There are only two instances in which emotions get the better of the characters. One involves Seth in a bathroom stall. The other involves Sam, who is genuinely saddened by his dog’s cancer diagnosis. Thematically, this reaches beyond the notion that even soulless corporate drones have the capacity for selflessness; the dog symbolizes the scarceness, frailty, and even the death of innocence. The final shot, which carries this idea even further, is tragic in more ways than one. Margin Call is nothing less than an American tragedy, especially for this very day and age, when the greed and corruption of Wall Street are foremost on everyone’s minds. It will be interesting to revisit this film when and if the country is brought back on track. Will future audiences appreciate that it was made at a time when the economy was in shambles, jobs were hard to land, and all reasonable attempts at financial reform were fought against?


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October 29, 2011
I don't think this is playing anywhere nearby. I may have to put it on my TBW list. thanks as always in tackling the independents!
October 29, 2011
How can I not tackle the independents? There are so many movies that don't fall into typical Hollywood categories, and to miss them would do me a great disservice. As for this film, I think it might also be available On Demand, although I can't swear to it.
More Margin Call reviews
review by . February 07, 2012
Be first!
I took away 2 statements from this movie: The numbers just don't add up anymore. If you're the first out of the door, that's not panicking.    This is a movie about the financial crisis that's still ongoing in the world but not any longer in the markets. Until, well, the next tsunami comes around, that is. The 2 statements above still work in the present time though.      It's been awhile since #1 operates in the global financial and banking …
review by . November 09, 2011
posted in Movie Hype
I quit watching the latest Pirates movie to watch this. I have no idea what that film was about and why Penelope Cruz still gets acting work. Utter, utter waste of time. Margin Call is tightly written and well paced - remember, just like movies used to be before CGI gave us all the attention span of a coked-up squirrel. The dialog is perfectly written, the acting by everyone is first class, and the whole thing moves like a greased-up ball-bearing on a hill with a fear of magnets. If you hate …
About the reviewer
Chris Pandolfi ()
Ranked #2
Growing up a shy kid in a quiet suburb of Los Angeles, Chris Pandolfi knows all about the imagination. Pretend games were always the most fun for him, especially on the school playground; he and his … more
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About this movie


Margin Call is a 2011 American independent drama film, written and directed by J.C. Chandor, and starring Kevin Spacey, Demi Moore, Paul Bettany, Jeremy Irons, Zachary Quinto, Stanley Tucci, Simon Baker, and Penn Badgley.

The film was first shown at the Sundance Film Festival in January 2011 and opened on October 21, 2011 in the United States.

The film takes place over a 24-hour period at a large investment bank (loosely modeled on Lehman Brothers) and focuses on the financial crisis of 2007–2010. The film follows the actions taken by a group of employees during the financial collapse.

Principal photography began on June 21, 2010 in New York City. Part of the film was shot on the 42nd floor of One Penn Plaza, which had recently been vacated by a trading firm. The film premiered at the 2011 Sundance Film Festival in Park City, Utah. The film also played In Competition at the 61st Berlin International Film Festival and was nominated for the Golden Bear.

The film was produced by Zachary Quinto's production company, Before The Door Pictures, by Quinto and his two producing partners, Neal Dodson and Corey Moosa.

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Director: J.C. Chandor
Genre: Thriller
Release Date: October 21, 2011
MPAA Rating: R
Screen Writer: J.C. Chandor
Studio: Before The Door Pictures
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"An American Tragedy"
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