'Margin Call' Takes Aim At The Financial System, Hopes To Humanize Bankers
It would be the ultimate stroke of lucky timing, as the Occupy Wall Street movement continues to gain momentum, for a film to come along that excoriates the titans of finance, painting red and giving horns to every well-pressed white collar. And yes, "Margin Call" does few favors for many of the derivative-swapping traders and bankers involved in the 2008 economic collapse. But writer/director JC Chandor's debut film largely sets its sights on the environment that allowed fiscal impropriety to take root -- while searching for humanity in decision makers that helped bring down the world economy.
The film stars Zachary Quinto and Penn Badgley as two young traders at a banking firm that is just beginning to feel the tremors of the oncoming financial earthquake. The film opens with mass firings on their floor, and Peter Sullivan (Quinto) and Seth Bregman (Badgley) survive the cuts, but their direct boss, Eric Dale (Stanley Tucci), does not. As he leaves, Eric gives Peter a thumb drive of an important project he had been working on; Peter finishes the calculations, and realizes that, if the firm holds onto its current portfolio, it would go under within days.
Peter shoots the information up the ladder: first to Tucci's direct boss, brash British trader Will Emerson (Paul Bettany), who calls in trading floor manager Sam Rogers (Kevin Spacey), who ends up calling in top-level executives Jared Cohen (Simon Baker), Sarah Robertson (Demi Moore) and John Tuld (Jeremy Irons). Soon, the conversation becomes a debate: should they dump all the junk product before the market crashes, even though they're well aware that it could hasten that crash?
While its always an actor's job to step into the shoes of the person they're portraying, whether good or evil, the cast understood their characters' morality had little to do with their jobs, or the decision they made. That comes thanks to the intimate, inward-looking story laid out by Chandor, who told The Huffington Post that his focus was on trying to point out that, regardless of whether those on Wall Street are likable, the financial system in place allowed them to make that sort of economy-damaging decision.
"You don't have the whole sort of modern financial system around-the-world-risk collapse, so that there wasn't money coming out of ATMs -- you don't have that come from some sort of criminal behavior," he said. "There has to be a significant systemic issue."
Bettany, who spent a long time researching the crisis upon accepting the role, agreed.
"It also seems to me that one shouldn't be pointing out individuals, one should be pointing fingers at companies and saying perhaps these companies -- and government frankly -- the government should be leashing these companies and there should be more regulation," the actor said, growing passionate about the ills that still plague the financial sector.
"I think the movie is about not pointing fingers at individuals, because people are human," he continued. "And we met them -- they are incredibly creative, bright human beings who actually managed to imagine more money that actually existed. That's creative! So to sort of think of these automatrons... They're not. They are doing the best thing that they can for their company, which is to corral as much wealth as they can. It's a systemic problem, not the problem of individuals."
Spacey, whose Sam is particularly troubled by the decision to dump the stock and wreak havoc on the economy, gained insight for the role from meeting with traders who were put in similarly difficult situations.
"It was very helpful," he said, "finding out what it was like for them to sort of be living with knowledge of what no one else knew, about the shit that was about to go down and also really realizing that in many cases that they had been warning their firms, warning their bosses, [and] no one was paying attention to what they were saying was going to happen... In many cases these were just people following orders and thought what the firms were doing was terrible and didn't agree with it at all."
Chandor had a lifetime of research about the reluctant banker caught in the mess: his father spent 40 years working in the industry. But even those titans of Wall Street who made the calls to build up vast wealth at the expense of the global economy, his film argues, aren't just two dimensional. He said what it comes down to is that, "When you see those numbers, whether it's a screen or a piece of paper or whatever, the first thought on most people's head, especially in this world, is 'am I still going to have a job because of this piece of information?'"
With that universal concern established, we can start considering the players in this crisis as human.
"There's backstories to what people bring to each character, like people have a whole monologue in their own mind about why Demi Moore's character did what she had to do, and that's exactly what I wanted," he explained. "In that process, you're actually putting yourself in each of these characters' shoes, which in a strange way allows you to not be sympathetic, but be somewhat empathetic."
From there, beyond the moral objections made by Spacey's Rogers, Quinto's Sullivan and Tucci's Dale, the film explores the divide between those disconnected from their firms' impact on the economy and the those who see themselves as, in many ways, simply floating upon the same historical tides of commerce that brings riches and ruin in equal waves.
"Look, there's a large part of this character that is about his detachment from any kind of social or empathetic position," Baker said of his Jared Cohen, who appeared almost mechanical in his disregard for greater consequences. "He's on the spectrum, I think, just. There's a lot of those people who are really intelligent who have that kind of detached thing; they aren't living here in their body, they're sort of living [above]."
On the other hand, there is Bettany's Will, who registers a strange likability with his tenacious, frank and unapologetic outlook on society and his deeper understanding of the western world.
"I think what he hates is the hypocrisy, which is also something I sort of hate, too. After ... the total ransacking of the third world, the only time we get pissed off is when it comes home and bites us on the ass, and everybody's up in arms about it," he said, growing impassioned. "It's the moment I like in the movie for him; if you enjoy your big house that you can't actually afford and your three cars and your f*cking people wagon so you can take your kids to soccer on the weekend, you need to shut your f*cking mouth now, because if you really want it to be fair, all of that goes away."
That, of course, isn't quite the message that those occupying Wall Street are eager to hear. In many ways, they may be able to identify best with Badgley's Seth, who, at first seeming like an arrogant young hotshot, loses his innocence as he sees heartless decisions being made. Badgley, in fact, has been to downtown Manhattan a number of times to portest with the occupiers at Zuccotti Park, and thinks that the film can actually help both the self-styled "99 Percent" and the financial industry's leaders better understand each other.
"I think what's really exciting about what this movie subtly hints at is that like, money money money, yes, but these are people, these are individuals, and they happen to be the individuals who happened to make these choices," he said. "And frankly, a lot of individuals in this case probably would have made the same decision. I'm not in any way justifying what they did, but I think in this time it's important to not ever paint a crisis in black and white, and the more you can look at the grey and play devil's advocate and think, 'Well what about the man who had to f*ck us all, basically?' The better you understand that, the better you understand how to solve this massive, seemingly unresolved problem."
Spacey, for his part, hopes that at least some people take in the film's message, even if it won't get great reviews chanted over the People's Microphone down at Zuccotti Park.
"We probably won't satisfy people who want to hang every banker that exists," the Oscar-winner said. "But for people who are more interested in being fair and understanding that decisions are being made by people who aren't ultimately the ultimate decision makers but they have to follow orders -- as I said, we may not satisfy all of them, but it's not a bad time to have a slightly more nuanced perspective."