Sunday, 5 February 2012

Margin Call

'Margin Call' is all about the sub-prime mortgage crisis and the collapse of the Mortgage Backed Security market around 2007/2008.

At some unnamed Wall Street firm they are letting go a massive 80% of the trading floor, security staff watch employees clearing their desks before they escort them from the building. One of these is Eric Dale (Stanley Tucci), a middle manager in the Risk Management department, who is laid off after 19 years of service. As he is lead from the building he hands a flash drive to one of his young analysts Peter Sullivan (Zachary Quinto). He tells him to take a look and ‘be careful’.

A few hours later, the remaining staff head out to the bars to celebrate avoiding the axe but Sullivan stays behind to take a look at what Dale has left him. He quickly realises the reason for Dale's warning. So many of the firm’s assets are now toxic that, according to Dale’s projections, they will soon owe a lot more than the company is worth. He calls his boss Will Emerson (Paul Bettany) back from the bar.

The film ‘simplifies’ the crisis in to a single overnight session as the situation is escalated up the corporate ladder and we are introduced, one rung at a time, to the hierarchy. First, sort of nice guy, Sam Rogers (Kevin Spacey), then top risk officer Sarah Robertson (Demi Moore) and the unlikable Jared Cohen (Simon Baker). Dale meanwhile has gone AWOL, which is entirely their own fault for letting him go of course.

It all culminates when the CEO John Tuld (Jeremy Irons) arrives by helicopter. Tuld, like his managers below him, doesn't understand the figures presented to him and needs someone to explain them to him, as he puts it, as if he were a Golden Retriever but they didn't really. I think I could have done a better job and I do later, to my partner in the bar over a beer that she didn't previously think she needed.

Tuld’s only focus is keeping the firm alive, at any cost. Although for others it poses a moral dilemma of sorts but still self-preservation comes first. It’s nothing personal, just business. Rogers, for one, seems a genuine guy, but cries more tears for his dying dog and even forgets to call his son who’s also in finance.

You can't feel sorry for anyone, as they'll all get well paid anyway. When Dale is tracked down, he and Robertson, whose head has been selected to roll for the mistakes, are required to sit in a room all day, doing nothing and getting paid to do so, because they both know too much. Meanwhile their traders attempt to land $1M+ bonuses for offloading the near worthless assets onto their unsuspecting clients before picking up the US equivalent of their P45s.

It’s all done very well, it’s engrossing and at times the tension is immense. The acting is excellent helped by some very good characterisation. We are given time to get to know everybody and understand the golden handcuffs that tie them to their trade. Everyone gets used to spending whatever they earn, however large.

At times the film seems to suggest that some bankers might be human after all... Nah, don’t think so.

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