How people will react when they’re faced with a failure that will not only jeopardize their jobs and lives, but the livelihoods of the people who have come to depend on them, is always an intriguing question. The prospect of facing a financial disaster is something many people are facing right now, and that dilemma is sympathetically brought to the screen in Margin Call, the feature film debut of writer-director J.C. Chandor. Trying to prove that not all bankers are solely concerned about themselves, the filmmaker creates characters filled with integrity who morally debate what the right course of action is for everyone.
Margin Call follows the happenings of a New York investment firm in a 24-hour period during the beginning of the 2008 financial crisis. Risk analyst Eric Dale (Stanley Tucci) is one of the many employees who are fired from the firm, and as he leaves, he gives his current project to entry level analyst Peter Sullivan (Zachary Quinto) to finish.
Peter realizes the firm is on the verge of a financial collapse, and with the help of fellow entry level analyst Seth Bregman (Penn Badgley), the two notify their immediate bosses, Will Emerson (Paul Bettany) and Sam Rogers (Kevin Spacey). Together, they realize they have to notify the top bosses of the firm, Jared Cohen (Simon Baker) and CEO John Tuld (Jeremy Irons), who both insist the firm immediately sell the majority of its stocks. While John and Jared have no qualms about selling almost worthless stocks that can cost millions of people their livelihoods, Peter, Seth, Sam and Will finally question whether what they do for a living really helps, or hurts, the public.
As a first time director and writer, Chandor was able to create an empathetic, humanizing story that was sympathetic to both the bankers and the public. Having gained knowledge of the financial world from his father, who worked for Merrill Lynch for over 35 years, he showed that not all financial workers are ruthless and only care about making money for themselves; there are some who truly want to serve and protect the public.
While John and Jared have been in the industry for years and only want to do what’s best for their firm, Peter and Seth, who are new to the financial world, aren’t only concerned for their jobs. While the two haven’t done anything to help aid the creation of the financial crisis, they can’t help but question what the future will bring to the public they serve.
Despite the characters’ differences in personality and beliefs, and the large ensemble cast, the actors all had a natural connection with each other. The majority of Margin Call is set within the same few offices and conference rooms of the firm’s floor, allowing the actors to be in the same place for most of the shoot. Demi Moore, who plays Chief Risk Officer Sarah Robertson, has said the actors would just walk across the hall to get to someone else’s dressing room. Everyone would talk about their previous acting experiences and give each other tips on how to portray their roles.
The enclosed set also helps reflect the tight-knit financial world that can tend to cut itself off from the outside world. For example, the majority of John’s scenes are in the conference room as he discusses why he wants to sell the firm’s stocks. He’s determined to do whatever it takes to keep the firm’s problems inside the company.
Also, Chandor made a unique and effective decision to position almost all the characters to look at the center of the floor, instead of out the windows. The decision shows that while some of the characters do care about what happens to the public’s money, they are only concerned with what’s going on on their floor at that moment.
Some people may be turned off by Margin Call‘s subject manner, as they don’t feel a film about the real-life financial crisis that’s affecting millions can be entertaining. However, Chandor uses his natural talents as a director and screenwriter and his knowledge of the financial world to make the subject both humanizing and relatable to all economic classes. The characters’ diverse personalities and the enclosing set that holds the firm’s secrets will surely leave viewers debating whether or not financiers truly care only about themselves, or the public they’ve sworn to serve as well.