This cautionary tale short-sells us on the excitement based on the collapse of Lehman brothers during the financial meltdown of 2008. During this time of financial crisis, the fourth largest bank in the United States, Lehman Brothers, files for bankruptcy.
Another normal day in 2008 for Margin Call’s Unknown investment bank, a subsidiary of Lehman brothers. Profits have been plummeting, 80% of the staff are facing the sack. A victim of the big lay off is one Eric Dale (Stanley Tucci), the head of rick management. While being ushered out by a security guard, he slips a key drive to Peter Sullivan (Zachary Quinto), his erstwhile minion. He bitterly exclaims, “They would not even let me finish on what I what I was working on! Be careful,” Peter quickly glances at it, realising Unknown Investment Bank Based on Lehman Brothers is so deep in a certain hole that even a glimmer of light would only help if they could somehow perform some sort of miracle with it. That is how bad the situation is.
Margin Call tries to ascertain the reason for the woes at Unknown Investment Bank. However, at any time someone tries to getting close to the details, or starts asking questions, the response is always the same, “”Well, sir, we are now leveraged up to our historical volatility index limits, and if you cross the streams in the flux capacitor Skynet will become self-aware at 2.14am Eastern Time.” At least that is what I have managed to jot down in my notes. I am not too sure though since for a moment I drifted off. It is very difficult to explain to an audience what is exactly going on without boring and confusing the audience that Paul Bettany and Kevin Spacey have to ask Peter to explain it “in Layman’s English”. Last resort, John Tuld (Jeremy Irons), the big boss. His name hints that he may be based on the real-life former Lehman CEO Dick Fuld. Tuld tells Peter, ”speak as if you were speaking to a child or a golden retriever.” However, it is still as bad since he is left to use business terms like product layering, trading security, market capitalisation and the like.
Maybe no feature-length movie can get close to explain what really happened at Lehman Brothers, which was complex enough to fill nine volumes of a court examiner’s report in 2010. Margin Call, however, manages to get it across that Unknown Investment Bank has bought too many subprime mortgage assets and those are turning out detrimental while underplaying the rest of the banking sector at the time. The human drama never hits the much required pitch, considering that there are no sex scenes, violence, explosions and no thrill, even though those would have been a huge plus to the film. Instead, it is just some filthy rich people standing around wearing suits, looking slightly disgruntled since they have messed up the world.
Of course speaking historically, this is very realistic.
Movies about businesses rarely work, and the few that actually manage to pull it off do so by having very smart dialogue and characters that you care about.
Margin Call has none of that. The cast, however much talented they are, are used to modest effect. John Tuld is downplayed and not allowed to be as fearsome as the real life Dick Fuld, a man who is coined as The Gorilla of Wall Street. None of the two shot callers, Eric and Peter, has enough screen time to come out as the hero. Trading floor boss Sam Rogers (Kevin Spacey), comes close to being the hero of the day but ends up spending too much of the film pouting about his chocolate Labrador that is in its death bed, slowly dying of incurable cancer.
It is best not to give this storyline a keen eye just in case the dog turns out to be less the faithful hound, more like a metaphor for capitalism. It is realistic again that all the characters in the film are hopeless to some extent, rather than being a full-fledged hero or villain. But watching people being a tad bit hopeless is never a thrill to watch.
If there is a great movie that was to be made about the global financial crisis, Margin Call is definitely not it.