December 9, 2011 -- This is a movie about the beginnings of the financial crisis that nearly brought world's economy crashing down in flames in 2008. If you are looking for a film that explains the financial meltdown on Wall Street, this isn't it. This is a drama about a small group of people in a particular investment bank and how they responded to this crisis. It doesn't really explain anything, and that is a problem.
This movie reminded me a lot of “Glengarry Glen Ross” a David Mamet film about desperate real estate salesmen trying to stay afloat in a bad sales climate. One salesman does something illegal to make money. “Margin Call” has the same air of desperation and the same Mamet low-key, smart-talking insider style presenting its story. The characters know more about what is happening than what is revealed to the audience in a Mamet film. In the case of “Margin Call,” several of the characters are in the same boat as the audience. They don't know what is going on, either.
A young financial analyst, Peter Sullivan (played by Zachary Quinto of “Star Trek”) learns that the major Wall Street firm he works for is seriously over-leveraged (meaning the firm doesn't have enough money on hand to cover its credit risk). In fact, a relatively small decline in the value of its core mortgage-based assets could leave the firm on the hook to the tune of several trillion dollars, more than the value of the entire firm. It is panic time.
Sullivan calls in his boss, Will Emerson (Paul Bettany of “The DaVinci Code”) in the middle of the night. Emerson doesn't understand the complex data analysis that Sullivan has done (Sullivan is literally a rocket scientist) but he grasps the danger. He calls his boss, Sam Rogers (Kevin Spacey of “Casino Jack”) into the office. Rogers also doesn't understand the data, but he calls his boss, Jared Cohen (Simon Baker of “The Devil Wears Prada”) who orders all hands on deck check Sullivan's figures, including the head of risk management, Sarah Robertson (Demi Moore of “Charlie's Angels: Full Throttle”).
After a meeting of top management people, the big boss, John Tuld (Jeremy Irons of “Kingdom of Heaven”) flies in to the meeting in his helicopter and makes his grand entrance. He doesn't understand Sullivan's analysis either, but the risk management people have determined it is probably right. Tuld sizes up the situation and decides that the firm must sell all of its risky, over-valued mortgaged based assets as quickly as possible, before anyone else discovers these securities are becoming worthless.
Sam Rogers objects to this course of action because the firm will be selling worthless securities for billions of dollars. After this, the buyers the firm has burned will never trust his salespeople, or the firm again. His salespeople will be basically putting themselves out of work by selling junk securities and ruining their own reputations. This is solved by basically buying everyone off with a lot of money.
You probably noticed there is a problem with this plot. Sullivan's analysis had to do with exposure to risk, not with the intrinsic value of mortgage-based securities per se. The act of selling these securities all at once, a fire sale, is the act that would drive down the prices of the securities. That means at least some people at the firm already knew these securities weren't worth much, so this moral hand-wringing over selling these securities seems less than genuine.
Some say the character John Tuld in this film is based on John Thain of Merrill Lynch and Dick Fuld of Lehman Brothers. The unnamed firm in the movie is said to be similar to the investment firms of Goldman Sachs, Citigroup and JP Morgan among others. I tend to reject the similarity to Lehman Brothers because it did not survive the economic crash while other firms did. The firm in the film looked like a survivor because it sold its securities while the prices were still high. The other firms got caught with their pants down.
While the acting is good in this film for the most part, the story doesn't hang together all that well for the reasons stated above. Also the film fails to explain what is really happening. The film is emotionally cool, like a Mamet film. Everyone is very polite and well mannered, even when they are destroying people's careers and savings. There are a couple of emotional scenes in the film, but for the most part, everyone is at least outwardly calm about what is happening. The film is slick and clever, but lacking in drama. It would probably make more sense to you if you are an expert in economics or have worked for a firm like this. This film rates a B.
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