Michael Rocha, Dybra Grande, Jeremy Greenland
March 19, 2013
Margin Call depicts a dramatization of a financial firm's crisis as events start to unfold during a thirty-six hour window. The film was brilliantly written in a way to not disagree nor agree with the financial firms or employees' actions, but to leave it up to the viewers as to what their opinion was. The movie begins when Peter, a Senior Risk Analyst, discovers that his company is going to go underwater when his former boss, Eric, hands him a flash drive and tells him to be careful. After working for several hours and figuring out that the formula they base trades off of is bad, Peter tries to get ahold of Eric with no luck. He then calls his friend, Seth, who is having drinks with Will, who is Head of Trading, and urgently states they should return to the office. After showing Will, word travels quickly to the Chief Executive Officer, Tuld, who calls a board meeting at 3 A.M. After hours of discussion, it is decided that the company will sell off all the mortgages at a discount, eventually to little value, to survive and sink their competitors. Although some characters are conflicted about what to do, in the end they decide to help the company and make the sales. Once the sale is completed, the company tries to save their reputation by stating they were not warned or given enough information to prevent this type of event from happening, which leads to the dismissal of Sarah Robertson.
Peter Sullivan is a physicist who switched careers to earn a lucrative salary as a Senior Risk Analyst. Peter, who figures out what Eric was trying to finish before he was fired, discovered the company will crash and bum unless they took quick action with the fire sale. Peter's motivation and world view is not as straight forward as some of the other characters' are, but are easily contrasted against his friend's, Seth. Although they have both seemingly worked for the company for the same amount of time, Peter is both smarter and older. As Seth is worried about what he will do if he is fired, Peter is more concerned about the bigger picture: if the fire sale is executed and what its implications are for society. For example, Peter was motivated to look through the flash drive handed to him, and warned his bosses about what was going to happen, not to save himself, but to help the company. This falls in line with his worldview of a general concern for his peers and country. Although Peter's options are not explicitly clear, he does have a few to which he can take. His choices included either, taking the information he learned to his bosses and warning them of the coming catastrophe or taking the information to the media or a rival firm for an exchange of a massive sum of money.
Seth is the youngest employee of the group and is included into the situation when Peter calls him to help look for his boss. He is a Junior Risk Analyst, who is more concerned with the amount of money he makes and whether or not he is getting fired. This is evident several times throughout the movie. For example, he asks his friend, Peter, how much he thinks his bosses make each year. Additionally, he asks several times whether they think he will be fired once the fire sale ends the following day. Although Seth does not make any critical decisions, his world view is evident with his actions throughout the movie. For example, his selfishness is noted when he tells Peter to come down from the office and have a few celebratory drinks, instead of working to find out why Eric told Peter to "be careful." Additionally, I believe Seth would have chosen to do what was more beneficial to help his own bank account, rather than having a concern for his company or society.
Jared Cohen, the Investment Division Head, is the individual who comes up with the idea of "selling it all." Simon's world view is evident when he implants the idea of selling their product to save their own skin. Furthermore, it is shown during the scene when he is shaving and Seth comes out of the bathroom stall crying, Seth states "this is all I wanted to do;" and Jared replies back with an uninterested look and response of "really." Additionally, during the scene with Jared and Sarah in the elevator, Sarah is trying to create a strategy with Jared to deal with Tuld. However, Jared replies "I'm not sure we need one, that's not the way I do things." His response states that he does not care if Sarah is thrown under the bus in regards to who gets to keep their job. Furthermore, Jared knew that there might have been a problem for about a year yet failed to act on it. This shows that he does not care what happens to his work industry or reputation, only that he wants more money in his pocket and job security. Jared's options could have impacted society if he decided not to sell. He could have come up with a different idea which would have not created the start of an economic recession. For example, Jared could have gone with what Sam had mentioned: the ethical route. Additionally, Jared could have prevented this entire catastrophe if he had actually listened to Sarah and caught the problem the year prior when he was first told, rather than letting it grow into what it did in the movie.
Sam Rogers, the Investment Floor Head played by Kevin Spacey, is my favorite character for a very specific reason. You're first introduced to him after he's been informed that the firings for the day are finally over with. He goes out to give them an inspirational speech, calling them "survivors". In my opinion, he comes off as somewhat callous; almost as if he's insensitive to the situation. You're left wondering if he truly cares for his employees, but over the course of the movie you see that he does; even when he's shown to be numb towards certain situations. The reason for him being my favorite character is the juxtaposition between his work persona and his personal life. Throughout the movie we're given glimpses of his personal life. You find out his dog is dying and that he's going through a divorce. It personalizes him; makes him more than a faceless corporate stooge. Eventually you realize that he is in fact the conscious of the movie. He points out the unethical decisions being made and tries to offer a moral viewpoint on the situation by asking Mr. Tuld, "Yes, but at what cost?" in regards to selling off the mortgage backed securities. Towards the end of the movie, I see him as a reflection of the average good person. He wants to be above that kind of job and doesn't want to be influenced to make unethical decisions; but the realities of his life, paying bills, paying alimony, etc, bring him back to reality. As he tells Mr. Tuld, near the end of the movie, "believe it or not, I need the money", Sam wants out but the stresses of real life pull him back in.
My analysis of Sam segues nicely into Will Emerson, Head of Trading and played by Paul Bettany. Will is, in a lot of ways, Sam's disciple, with maybe a smidge more indifference towards the average worker. I believe Will has very nicely rationalized what people might consider the unethical work he does; this is illustrated in his speech to Seth as they are coming back from Eric Dale's house. "Jesus, Seth. Listen, if you really wanna do this with your life you have to believe you're necessary and you are. People wanna live like this in their cars and big fuckin' houses they can't even pay for, then you're necessary. The only reason that they all get to continue living like kings is cause we got our fingers on the scales in their favor. I take my hand off and then the whole world gets really fuckin' fair really fuckin' quickly and nobody actually wants that. They say they do but they don't. They want what we have to give them but they also wanna, you know, play innocent and pretend they have no idea where it came from. Well, that's more hypocrisy than I'm willing to swallow, so fuck em." The quote is a little lengthy, but I think it's integral to understanding who Will Emerson is as a person. He's not completely insensitive towards people's plights. He seems to be genuinely sorry about Seth losing his job, but he's also pragmatic, informing Seth that "nothing I'm gonna say is going to make you feel any better. It's just going to suck for a while and then you'll be fine." He truly believes that what he's doing is necessary and, as such, he's not going to quip over the dirty parts of the job. However, on that same note, he also very much looks up to Sam and is willing to follow Sam's lead even to his own detriment. When Mr. Cohen asks Will if he'd be willing to take over for Sam, Will makes it very clear that his viewpoint of what's right and wrong has and will always follow Sam's. In the end, I felt a lot more respect for Will than in the beginning. Pragmatic he might be, but he definitely has his own sense of ethics and morality and he's not willing to compromise them.
Jeremy Irons plays John Tuld, CEO and chairman of the board. I think the director wrote the part of John Tuld to reflect the face of Wall Street as people see it. A wealthy CEO who's ruthless and willing to do whatever it takes in order to ensure his company comes out on top. However he also displays a sense of honor and at least does some rationalizing of his actions. During the board meeting he tells Mr. Cohen "there are three ways to make a living in this business: be first, be smarter, or cheat. And I don't cheat." I think the last part is very significant; he makes it clear that he will not break any rules in order to come ahead, he might bend them but his own code of honor will not let him actually break them. That might seem like a fine distinction but I believe it to be an important one. Near the end, when he's explaining to Sam about how the percentages never change between the winners and losers, I think that was an attempt to explain how people like John Tuld see the world and their role in it. Sam kind of shrugs it off afterwards though, by saying that he's not staying because of the speech but because he needs the money. The speech, however, struck me as a little contrived. I mean here Mr. Tuld is, hours after ruining the market as they knew it at the time, thousands of people losing their jobs around the world, and he's having a steak dinner. It felt like the logic was relatively sound but behind his choices he, himself, had lost touch with the reality of it all. This was contrasted by Peter who was still down to earth enough to realize how impactful the company's decisions would be that day.
Eric Dale has been the head of the risk management department for 19 years until he was let go one morning, forced to collect his belongings and leave the firm immediately. He is told that all of his cell phone services have been cut off and he will be escorted out of the building. As he leaves the company, he encounters Peter Sullivan and gives him a USB drive asking him to examine his project and departs with these words "be careful". Unfortunately, for the firm these words proved ominous, since the project warned of an upcoming possibility. Eric's project analyzes levels of volatility of mortgage-backed securities as they began to lose value. This provided information on expecting incurring losses that exceeded market capitalization within a period of time for the firm. Throughout the movie, employees of the firm are trying to get in contact with Eric about his project. When they find him, he is offered a hefty sum to provide consultation to the firm on decisions derived by his research. I thought Eric reacted considerately after being fired and escorted by security out of the building. I personally would have not said anything about my research due to the fact I was treated like a criminal. The fact that he looked beyond the behavior of his superiors and genuinely cared for the people working at the firm was honorable of him and speaks volumes.
Sarah Robertson is the Chief Risk Management Officer for her firm, but becomes a sacrificial lamb overnight. Although she has filtered several warnings to John Tuld and Jared Cohen over the risk of the mortgage-backed securities, her analyses are disregarded. Unfortunately for her, neither John nor Jared wanted to share the blame of the losses incurred by the firm. Sarah was forced to take the blame and become a sacrifice to the board in return for the losses of the mortgage-backed securities. She was offered a hefty compensation plan by John Tuld and was forced to remain in the company until the market closed. I thought Sarah Robertson was an interesting character for her courage and ability to handle responsibility. Sarah could have refused the role of the martyr and left the company for a better one, but she stayed.
In conclusion, this film portrayed a cutthroat industry in which individuals were faced with important decisions such as, creating financial stability for the company or lookout for their shareholders, or themselves. For characters such as Sam Rogers, Will Emerson, John Tuld, and Simon Baker, high level executives, saving themselves from the impending doom was more important than a financial recovery. For Eric Dale, Seth Bregman, and Peter Sullivan analyzing, predicting, and providing awareness of the situation was more important. Essentially what it comes down to is empathy; Margin Call is a realistic take on what happens inside of high level Wall Street companies when decisions on financial crises occur. You're shown the good, the bad, and, sometimes, the ugly.
Margin Call. Dir. J. C. Chandor. Perf. Kevin Spacey. Roadside Attractions, 2011. DVD.