As the entire world waits with bated breath for the outcome of the July 5 referendum in Greece, we are reminded once again that the aftershocks of the 2008 financial crisis are still vibrating. Watching the economic turmoil unfolding overseas, one cannot help but think back to J.C. Chandor’s drama Margin Call, which offered a fictional account of the hours leading up to the global economic bubble bursting. Though there have been a handful of films – take Inside Job, Up in the Air and the animated film Piercing 1 for example – that have broached the topic, it feels as if the cinematic storytellers, like the rest of us, are still trying to make sense of the true depth of devastation the financial quake has caused.
Set within the world of investment banking, the film follows two junior risk management employees, Peter Sullivan (Zachary Quinto) and Seth Bregman (Penn Badgley), unaware of the looming financial crisis about to descend upon them. Taking place over a 24 hour period, Chandor’s story begins with an unexpected mass layoff at the unnamed firm that Sullivan and Bregman work at. Prior to being let go, Sullivan’s now ex-boss Eric Dale (Stanley Tucci) was working on an irregularity that he could not make sense of. After taking over Dale’s research, Sullivan eventually cracks the code and discovers that the current financial formula, globally used to calculate volatility levels in the market place, is pointing to a worldwide downfall. Did the powers that be at the firm already know that such an event was coming?
Finding themselves thrown into tense meetings with their superiors – including their new boss Will Emerson (Paul Bettany), head of sales Sam Rogers (Kevin Spacey), head of securities Jared Cohen (Simon Baker), head of risks Sarah Robertson (Demi Moore) and the CEO of the company John Tuld (Jeremy Irons) – Sullivan and Bregman get an eye-opening glimpse at a side of the firm where tough decisions are made and loyalties come into question. With the lucrative times about to go up in smoke, the company quickly dissolves into a vicious survival of the fittest mentality. One in which only those willing to make ruthless choices stand the best chances at prevailing.
It is scary that, seven years after the real collapse, Margin Call still feels extremely timely. Similar to the fascination currently focused on the Greek economy, Chandor’s film works because it is all about reactions. Instead of preaching about the evils of greed, the film is more concerned with the question of “what will they do now knowing the dangers that lay ahead?” The cliff is quickly approaching. Will they fall off? Or will they grab onto that lone branch sticking out of the side at the last minute?
The fact that J.C. Chandor manages to humanize many of the characters, such as Rogers and Robertson, who we initially despise, is quite a feat. Of course he does not shy away from presenting unflinching truths about the business world as well. The tightly woven script eloquently captures the cold nature of corporate life. Margin Call reminds us that the events of 2008 were a drastic wakeup call that we have yet to fully learn from. When Jeremy Irons’ John Tuld calmly utters “there will be a lot of money to be made coming out of this mess,” one can imagine him in 2015 coldly echoing the same words when observing the economic strife that Greece, and many countries across the globe, are enduring.
Margin Call is currently streaming on Netflix in Canada and the UK