2 “Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room” + 2 “Boiler Room” = 4 Margin Call
“Margin Call” is “Wall Street” for the derivatives age. Where Oliver Stone’s movie was about Big Themes: hubris, father-son issues, GREED!, “Margin Call” is a technocratic film. Writer/director J.C. Chandor’s accomplishment is to delve into the belly of the beast to show us how the sausage is digested. His story spans from the top to the bottom of an investment bank, documenting how the complexity of derivatives confused the very people selling them. He improves on another good Wall Street movie, “Boiler Room,” which updated the Greed is Good ethos to the post-frat culture of the 90s.
“Margin Call”’s banks are populated by nerds—architects and physicists drawn to the money that far surpasses what R&D and universities can provide. Hence, the complication. By bundling shoddy mortgages into securities and those securities into securities, they obscured the negative value of the products, then flipped them to their own customers. All the suits upstairs understood is that these things made lots of money.
Chandor opens the movie with Eric (Stanley Tucci), the former architect, getting downsized just as he’s on the brink of being downsized. He tosses a flashdrive to Peter (Zachary Quinto), the analyst important from physics, and Seth (Penn Badgley) the aspiring tycoon, who discover that the entire securities operation is a scam. The rest of the film is a workplace drama scaling the layers of accountability, from Kevin Spacey, swimming with the sharks as head of sales, to Paul Bettany, the division head, to Simon Baker, the prodigy promoted over lifers, to Demi Moore, the layer of accountability between operations and global CEO Jeremy Irons, who ultimately has to manage the crisis.
In the end, the film avoids the Stone-ian moralizing by simply showing you process. There’s a difference between changing careers for the money and Gordon Gekko evangelizing about greed, or even Ben Affleck sliding the keys to his sports car down a mahogany table. Still, these guys pay the price, and yes, the nature of their business is to put other people’s money at risk for their own profit, knowing full well they’ll survive in the end. “Margin Call” restrains itself rather than broadcast obvious judgments.