DVD Review - Margin Call

Zachary Quinto in "Margin Call"
Unless you've seen this year's Oscar winner for Best Documentary, Inside Job (2010), or unless you've followed the news, the reporting or read the books about the financial crisis of 2008, the significance or meaning of what's happening in this movie will not come through. Writer-director JC Chandor created this story, which was partially inspired by his own father's story, to explain what happens when a financial firm all of a sudden is experiencing what is known as a "margin call."

Despite all the conversations and explanations, the movie never really tells you what a margin call is or how it relates to the financial crisis. One character in this movie boils everything down to the Wall Street traders being glorified gamblers. What we later infer is that because of which the firm ends up selling things it shouldn't be in effect to pay off its gambling debt. Chandor touches upon the idea of toxic assets, which are the things the firm shouldn't be selling as a result of the bad gambles, but never goes into detail about them.

First off, a margin call has to be explained. A "margin" by itself is collateral or property secured to a lender for repayment of a loan to protect the lender in case of default. When it comes to mortgages, the margin is typically a house and/or the land it's on. When it comes to Wall Street, it's typically cash, shares in a company, securities or various other forms of assets.

If a person or a group wants to buy stocks, sometimes, probably many times, the person or group never pays the full amount for those stocks. The rest of the money is put up by a broker or a financial firm like a bank for example. The broker or the firm will do so under the condition that the person or group pay a margin in the event that the value of the stocks goes down to unacceptable levels. A "margin call" is the act of that broker demanding to be paid this margin.

In the 1920s, an increase of margin calls led to the Stock Market Crash of 1929 and subsequently the Great Depression. The financial crisis of 2008 was also the result of margin calls to some extent. What precipitated the so-called margin calls was the sub-prime mortgage problem. I don't think Chandor's film makes this connection, which would have given his movie more resonance.

The Internet was lit up back in April 2010 when Senator Carl Levin questioned Daniel Sparks, the former Mortgages Department Head at Goldman Sachs, about selling securities of a CDO known as Timberwolf. Levin quoted an email sent to Sparks, which read, "Boy, that Timberwolf was one shitty deal." Basically, Timberwolf had toxic assets in the form of bad sub-prime mortgages, and Levin's indictment was that Sparks and Goldman Sachs knew about it and sold them anyway.

This is essentially what the fictionalized firm, known as NBS, in Chandor's movie does, but Chandor never makes this connection as to relate what goes on in the firm to the outside world. He has characters hint at the margin call, domino effect that like in the 1920s could cause a crash or something like the eventual crisis that occurred in 2008, but, for the most part, Chandor maintains this movie as an insular drama.

Zacharay Quinto (Star Trek and Heroes) stars as Peter Sullivan, an MIT and UPENN graduate who is working as an analyst at NBS. He works along side stock traders and all kinds of financial officers. It's obvious that he's not like many of the others. He's not a salesman. He's not cutthroat per se. He has a compassion as opposed to the competition inherent in his co-workers.

Much in the way that The Company Men and Larry Crowne opened, this movie begins with a man losing his job. Instead of being about dealing with unemployment in the post-2008 climate, this movie is about what helped to cause that climate. Stanley Tucci plays Eric Dale, a manager at the firm who becomes the first casualty. In many ways, he represents an elder version of Quinto's character. It makes sense that Peter is the only one to connect with him. It's only a minor gesture but Peter is the only one to make that gesture. It's the first indication of Peter's compassion.

The entire film takes place all within twenty-four hours, and Quinto is actually one of an ensemble that engage in a series of meetings about what will lead to the theoretical margin call. The majority of this ensemble exhibit a kind of selfishness. Of that ensemble, there's Jeremy Irons, Demi Moore, Paul Bettany, Simon Baker and Penn Badgely. Of the ensemble whose characters don't exhibit that kind of selfishness, there is Kevin Spacey who plays Sam, an executive at the firm.

At times, Chandor's morality play felt like Oliver Stone's Wall Street with Quinto playing the Charlie Sheen role and Irons playing the Michael Douglas role. Like Douglas, Irons eats up his scenes. He grabs the film with all force and shakes it. Chandor doesn't allow anything to fall though. He gives all his actors moments to make a mark.

While I think Chandor is a good writer and director, I also think that he takes a lot of things for granted. It's an unfair comparison. I was watching Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (1958), which is a story that plays out all in one night, much like Margin Call, Chandor doesn't infuse his characters and incidents with as much richness. This may in fact be a stylistic choice. I'm not expecting Chandor to be Tennessee Williams, but besides where Peter went to school, we learn nothing about him. We get better insight into who Tucci and Spacey's characters are outside the firm, but that's it.

Chandor's actors fill in a lot of the gaps at least on emotional levels that help to buttress the film. Badgely, for example, who plays Seth, the character that boils the people at the firm down to being glorified gamblers, has a very heartbreaking scene. A lot of the rest of it feels cold and without passion.

Three Stars out of Five.
Rated R for language.
Running Time: 1 hr. and 47 mins.


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