Movie review: ‘Margin Call’ and the 2008 crash

By Sarah Coughlon

Most disaster movies divide into four stages: normalcy, warning signs, crisis, and return to normalcy. Margin Call is a film about warning signs. In the summer of 2008, a young risk-management analyst at a fictionalized Wall Street investment bank sees a warning sign in the models predicting the worth of the firm’s assets.

Late at night, alone at his computer in the film’s Lehman Brothers stand-in, he is the first to see that Wall Street is on the brink of sudden collapse. The young banker, Peter Sullivan, follows that news as it travels up the chain of command during the final thirty-six hours before the crash… and the rest is all-too-recent history.

Actually, that history is never explicitly laid out in Margin Call: this disaster film plays with the formula by stopping short of the disaster and sending us out of the theater into a world that hasn’t yet returned to normal. At one point, one of the bankers looks out from a company car and wonders aloud if any of the “normal people” knows what’s about to happen… and we don’t really need that question answered for us. No, we didn’t have any idea, and to a certain extent we still don’t.

In that sense, Margin Call is a deeply ironic film: Director JC Chardon is (more or less) telling a true story that the audience-members were never privy to while it was happening, but the emotional payoff comes from inviting us to be much more concerned about the fate of the economy than any of these characters seem to be.

That emotional sleight of hand is one of the film’s greatest strengths, problematic though it is. In the age of Occupy, it’s very difficult to view these young and careless bankers positively. Some of them, like division head Jared Cohen (Simon Baker looking even more snake-like and unsympathetic than usual), are the furthest thing possible from heroes. However, they are also not quite villains as evildoers should lie outside of our sympathy, where we see their choice and can condemn them for it. There is never any doubt about the harm that these characters have caused, but there is a more complex form of moral ambiguity when we cannot isolate the bad guy’s choices or avoid feeling pity for him. That ambiguity is central to Margin Call.

The audience is constantly forced to ask if these bankers have real agency: these masters of the universe are scrambling to control forces that they barely understand, let alone have power over. In one of the film’s most striking moments, CEO Richard Fuld stand-in (Jeremy Irons) instructs Sullivan to explain the situation to him “as you would to a three-year-old, or a golden retriever.” The subtext is not lost on the audience: these people are playing a deadly serious game, and they’ve just realized how little they understand it.

How are we to react to this? This failure to realize their own limits should be the place where the audience pins our moral outrage on Wall Street: they played with fire and we got burned. But somehow that moral outrage is arrested when we watch these individual bankers realize their mistake: we’ve zoomed in on Icharus’ face when he realizes that the wings are melting, and our pity blunts our anger.

If the outside world has a representative in the cold boardrooms where the fate of American finance is being decided, it’s Peter Sullivan, the young banker who sounded the alarm call in the first place. Picking up geek-chic where Star Trek left off, Zachary Quinto plays Sullivan with just enough uncertainty to arouse our sympathies. He is not quite one of “them.” He’s a brilliant young physicist who went into banking because those equations pay better. He doesn’t reject the value system that prizes the firm’s profits above all else, but he doesn’t seem to have bought into it either. We make sense of the crash through his confusion.

Of course, Margin Call is not a primer on the 2008 financial crisis, and it is a better film for having not taken an explicit political stance. However, by using this historical event as a means to explore these larger themes of agency and blame, the film does provoke some uncomfortable questions about the crash. How much blame can we pin on individual people? Can we trust the banks to use their economic power wisely? Is it fair to say that the bankers caused massive harm to others because of greed and recklessness, but stop short of calling them bad people? There are no answers in this film, but it deserves credit for asking those questions.

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