Margin Call is a 2011 American drama film written and directed by J. C. Chandor in his feature directorial debut. The principal story takes place over a 24-hour period at a large Wall Street investment bank during the initial stages of the financial crisis of 2007–08. In focus are the actions taken by a group of employees during the subsequent financial collapse. The ensemble cast features Kevin Spacey, Paul Bettany, Jeremy Irons, Zachary Quinto, Penn Badgley, Simon Baker, Demi Moore, and Stanley Tucci.
Theatrical release poster
|Directed by||J. C. Chandor|
|Written by||J. C. Chandor|
|Music by||Nathan Larson|
|Edited by||Pete Beaudreau|
|Box office||$19.5 million|
The film was produced by the production companies Before the Door Pictures (first to sign on, and owned by Zachary Quinto), Benaroya Pictures, as well as Washington Square Films. Theatrically, it was commercially distributed by Lionsgate and Roadside Attractions. Margin Call explores capitalism, greed, and investment fraud. The director and screenwriter, J. C. Chandor, is himself the son of an investment banker; the screenplay was partially informed by Chandor's own foray into real estate investments in New York City soon before the financial crash. Following its wide release in theaters, the film garnered award nominations from the Detroit Film Critics Society, along with several separate nominations for its screenplay and direction from recognized award organizations, including a nomination for the Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay. The score was orchestrated by musician Nathan Larson.
The film made its premiere at the Sundance Film Festival on January 25, 2011, and opened in theaters nationwide in the United States on October 21, 2011, grossing $5,354,039 in domestic ticket receipts. It was screened at 199 theaters during its widest release in cinemas. It earned an additional $14,150,000 in business through international release to top out at a combined $19,504,039 in gross theatrical revenue. It was a ground-breaking day-and-date release that earned more than $10,000,000 in video-on-demand sales during its initial theatrical release. Preceding its theatrical release, Margin Call was met with positive critical reviews. The DVD and Blu-ray editions of the film were released in the United States on December 20, 2011.
An unnamed investment bank begins a mass layoff on the trading floor during a normal business day. Among those let go is Eric Dale (Tucci), head of risk management. Dale tries to speak about his current, unfinished project, first with human resources staff and then with desk head Will Emerson (Bettany), but is told that this is no longer his concern. While being escorted out of the building he meets one of his risk analysts, Peter Sullivan (Quinto), and gives him a USB stick to look at with a vague instruction to "be careful."
Sullivan works late that night to finish Dale's project, and discovers that current volatility in the firm's portfolio of mortgage-backed securities has exceeded the historical volatility levels of the positions. Because of excessive leverage, if the portfolio's value decreases by 25%, the loss will be greater than the value of the firm itself and the firm will go bankrupt. Sullivan and his colleague, junior analyst Seth Bregman (Badgley), tell Emerson about the situation. Emerson alerts floor head Sam Rogers (Spacey), who also returns to the office. They attempt to contact Dale, but the company shut off his phone and he hadn't yet returned home.
The firm's managers hold emergency meetings in the middle of the night in which division head Jared Cohen (Baker), chief risk management officer Sarah Robertson (Moore), and other senior executives discuss their options. Finally, CEO John Tuld (Irons) is called in. Sullivan explains the nature of the problem: the firm needs about a month to layer its MBS products, so the assets stay on the company's books longer than they might prefer, but because they are essentially mortgages (which are generally viewed as "low risk") the firm has been able to "push the leverage" beyond what they would otherwise be willing or allowed to do. He also explains that his projection of losses greater than the market value of the company is only in a 'music slowing' scenario (using Tuld's analogy), noting that if the 'music were to stop', the scenario would be considerably worse.
Cohen's plan is for the firm to quickly dump all of the toxic assets in a fire sale before the market learns of their worthlessness, thereby limiting the firm's exposure. Tuld favors the plan, comparing the economic situation to one of musical chairs: when the music stops, the last one standing will be left with only toxic, worthless securities. Rogers opposes Cohen's plan, warning that dumping all of their toxic assets, spreading the risk throughout the financial sector, will destroy the firm's relationships with its counterparties, and cripple the market for the foreseeable future. He also warns Cohen that their customers will quickly learn of the firm's plans once they realize that the firm is only selling the toxic securities, but is not buying any new ones.
By early morning, Dale is found back at his home in Brooklyn. Emerson convinces him to return to the office, informing him that the firm will not pay him his severance and other benefits unless he agrees to participate in their plan. Emerson also tells Seth he'll probably lose his job in the crisis, but will get a large severance, while explaining to him the amoral, cyclical nature of the markets. Meanwhile, it is revealed that Robertson, Cohen, and Tuld were aware of the risks in the weeks leading up to the crisis. Tuld offers Robertson up as the scapegoat, putting the blame of the crisis on her and forcing her resignation. Both Dale and Robertson are instructed to remain in the office all day and do nothing in return for an increase to their severance packages. Robertson expresses regret for not doing more to prevent the crisis.
With the markets yet to open, Tuld convinces Rogers to go along with Cohen's plan. In a speech to his traders in preparation for the fire sale, Rogers warns them that, by participating, they are effectively ruining their reputations and ending their careers in the industry, but offers a $1.4 million bonus to those able to sell 93% of their assigned securities, with further $1.3 million bonuses if the entire sales floor can reach 93% as a whole. As the markets open, Emerson and the traders immediately begin rapidly selling off their securities and quickly arouse suspicion and anger from their buyers as the hours pass. By the closing bell the firm takes tremendous losses, dumping positions for cents on the dollar, but is able to sell off all the toxic assets.
Cohen tells Rogers there will be another round of layoffs, but Rogers will keep his job. Angry that he was retained, Rogers confronts Tuld, telling him that he wants to cash in on his options and severance pay and leave the firm. Tuld dismisses his protests, claiming that the current crisis is no different from various bear markets of the past, and that sharp gains and losses are simply part of the economic cycle. He persuades Rogers to stay at the firm for another two years, promising that there will be a lot of money to be made from the coming crisis. Cohen brings in Sullivan, who Tuld intends to promote. Rogers reluctantly accepts Tuld's deal, but says it's only because he needs the money.
Rogers buries his dog in his ex-wife's front yard in the middle of the night, and learns from her that their son's financial firm took a big hit but survived the day's trading. The screen cuts to black and the credits roll as the sound of Rogers shoveling dirt continues.
- Kevin Spacey as Sam Rogers, head of sales, Will's boss, and by extension Peter's and Seth's.
- Zachary Quinto as Peter Sullivan, one of Eric's risk analysts, who first uncovers the crisis.
- Jeremy Irons as John Tuld, the CEO of the firm, who is flown in to deal with the crisis.
- Paul Bettany as Will Emerson, head of trading, who was Eric's boss until his departure.
- Simon Baker as Jared Cohen, division chief for the firm, who reports directly to Tuld.
- Penn Badgley as Seth Bregman, one of Eric's junior risk analysts, who is dragged along for the ride.
- Demi Moore as Sarah Robertson, chief risk management officer, and colleague of Cohen's.
- Stanley Tucci as Eric Dale, head of risk management under Sam and Will, who is fired in the layoffs.
- Aasif Mandvi as Ramesh Shah, an unspecified senior management officer from "upstairs".
- Mary McDonnell as Mary Rogers, Sam's ex-wife.
- Ashley Williams as Heather Burke, one of the junior HR officers responsible for the layoffs.
- Susan Blackwell as Lauren Bratberg, one of the senior HR officers responsible for the layoffs.
- Al Sapienza as Louis Carmelo, Tuld's personal advisor and aide.
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 and Carnegie Mellon University classmates, Neal Dodson and Corey Moosa.
The film received positive reviews from critics, garnering an 87% approval rating on Rotten Tomatoes, based on 164 reviews with an average rating of 7.21/10. The website's critical consensus reads: "Smart, tightly wound, and solidly acted, Margin Call turns the convoluted financial meltdown of '08 into gripping, thought-provoking drama." On Metacritic, the film has a weighted average score of 76 out of 100, based on 38 critics, indicating "generally favorable reviews".
The New Yorker film critic David Denby said it was "easily the best Wall Street movie ever made". Roger Ebert of the Chicago Sun-Times gave the film three and half stars out of four, and said: "Margin Call employs an excellent cast who can make financial talk into compelling dialogue." A. O. Scott of The New York Times wrote: "It is hard to believe that Margin Call is Mr. Chandor’s first feature. His formal command—his ability to imply far more than he shows or says and to orchestrate a large, complex drama out of whispers, glances, and snippets of jargon—is downright awe inspiring."
Roger Ebert wrote: "I think the movie is about how its characters are concerned only by the welfare of their corporations. There is no larger sense of the public good. Corporations are amoral, and exist to survive and succeed, at whatever human cost. This is what the Occupy Wall Street protesters are angry about: They are not against capitalism, but about Wall Street dishonesty and greed. [...] [The cast] reflects the enormity of what is happening: Their company and their lives are being rendered meaningless." A.O. Scott wrote: "Margin Call is a thriller, moving through ambient shadows to the anxious tempo of Nathan Larson’s hushed, anxious score. It is also a horror movie, with disaster lurking like an unseen demon outside the skyscraper windows and behind the computer screens. It is also a workplace comedy of sorts. The crackling, syncopated dialogue and the plot, full of reversals and double crosses, owe an obvious debt to David Mamet’s profane fables of deal-making machismo. Hovering over all of it is the dark romance of capital: the elegance of numbers; the kinkiness of money; the deep, rotten, erotic allure of power."
Although the film does not depict any real Wall Street firm, and the fictional firm is never named, the plot has similarities to some events during the 2008 financial crisis: Goldman Sachs similarly moved early to hedge and reduce its position in mortgage-backed securities, at the urging of two employees, which essentially mirrors Tuld's comment about the advantage of moving first. Lehman Brothers moved second and went bankrupt. John Tuld's name is said to be a combination of Merrill Lynch's ex-CEO John Thain and Lehman Brothers' ex-CEO Richard Fuld.
|Academy Awards||Best Original Screenplay||J. C. Chandor||Nominated|
|Australian Academy of Cinema and Television Arts||Best Film – International||J. C. Chandor, Neal Dodson, Zachary Quinto||Nominated|
|Best Direction – International||J. C. Chandor||Nominated|
|Best Screenplay – International||Won|
|Casting Society of America||Outstanding Achievement in Casting
for a Studio or Independent Drama Feature
|Bernard Telsey, Tiffany Little Canfield||Nominated|
|Detroit Film Critics Society||Best Ensemble||Nominated|
|Independent Spirit Awards||Best First Feature||J.C. Chandor, Neal Dodson, Zachary Quinto||Won|
|Best First Screenplay||J.C. Chandor||Nominated|
|Robert Altman Award||J.C. Chandor, Bernie Telsey, Tiffany Little-Canfield, Zachary Quinto, Kevin Spacey, Jeremy Irons, Paul Bettany, Demi Moore, Simon Baker, Penn Badgley, Mary McDonnell, Aasif Mandvi, Ashley Williams||Won|
|National Board of Review Awards||Spotlight Award for Best Directorial Debut||J.C. Chandor||Won|
|Top 10 Independent Films||Nominated|
|San Francisco Film Critics Circle Awards||Best Original Screenplay||J.C. Chandor||Won|
|New York Film Critics Circle Awards||Best First Film||Won|
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