It took a disturbed night’s sleep to arrive at what was bugging me about Margin Call (2011), the examination of key players reacting to crisis at an investment trading house, and it hit me in the shower. This is Glengarry Glen Ross (1992) with a lot more noughts.
The latter told of a Chicago real estate company in tough times and the incentives offered to close deals in a sales contest forced on its staff. First prize a Cadillac; second prize steak knives; third prize the sack. In Margin Call the stakes are far higher – financial oblivion for the company on a global scale and complete wipe out for investors and possibly other investment institutions.
However, the principles and principals are similar – an ensemble cast, almost exclusively men, whose real characters emerge from the shallow existences they lead in good times.
How will they react to the possibility of financial Armageddon after the actions of a sacked 19-year veteran of the company?
As he is escorted from the building, Eric Dale (Stanley Tucci, as one of the film’s rare redeeming characters) passes a memory stick detailing something he has been working on to young co-worker Peter Sullivan (Zachary Quinto). This sets circumstances in motion as interesting as the plight of the different styles and reactions of the salesmen in Glengarry Glen Ross.
Tucci returns later in the movie to deliver one man’s view of the world – how as an engineer in an earlier career he had built a bridge which had since saved millions of hours of car time for travellers. It is perhaps the key point trying to be made in Margin Call: that these people deal in money and debt which is not a tangible thing. Building something like a bridge is.
At another point, Sullivan gives a complicated explanation of his qualifications and is labelled a rocket scientist by a superior. Sullivan explains that the firm offers more money than “rocket science.” Building something tangible should be more important than making money but apparently it isn’t.
Making money is certainly the view of the bank’s head John Tuld (Jeremy Irons), a ruthless, savvy veteran of previous stratospheric highs and lows. In one speech Tuld reels off all the financial disasters in the history of capitalism, saving 1987 for near last (“Jesus – didn’t that fucker fuck me up good?“) and is more than ready to weather the global criticism that his decision to dump worthless investments on the market will have.
For him, it’s the game he plays. Building things isn’t important, making money is. He champions three ways to be better than his business rivals: “be first, be smarter, or cheat …now I don’t cheat.” Earlier in the same scene Tuld revealed he didn’t get where he did from being clever; after the second speech, with smarter and cheating discounted, the audience and his staff are left in no doubt what his firm will do. Be first.
Grave misgivings of the plan are offered by Sam Rogers (Kevin Spacey), a 34-year company veteran who disagrees with the sell strategy but folds because he needs the money. Tuld needs Rogers because he is the heart and soul of the firm and the key to motivating the sales people to clear the books within a day’s trade.
Irons delivers the stand out performance in Margin Call’s ensemble cast. Spacey, Tucci and Simon Baker are workmanlike as is Demi Moore at first ruthless, then resigned to her fate as the head the market has to have to be somewhat placated; leaving Paul Bettany of the other ‘names’ to emerge as the best of this group.
Quinto and Penn Badgley are serviceable as the young Turks of the lower ranks, tellingly told by Rogers when the decision to dump has been made “never forget this day boys.” You wonder if they will and for what reasons.
There was also a dog in it. One of our members in the post film wrap-up (I won’t tell you who it is but his initials are Paul Sullivan) declared the canine to be Sam’s only friend. The final pitch of Margin Call is to have no soundtrack over the credits but the sound of a shovel hitting dirt as the dog’s owner buries him in his ex-wife’s front yard.
FOOTNOTE: Until looking up its cast, I had forgotten Spacey was one of the salesmen in Glengarry Glen Ross. The others included Jack Lemmon (Spacey’s real life hero), Al Pacino and Ed Harris).