An executive at a Wall Street investment firm attempts to stand firm morally in the face of threats to the economic survival of himself and the company he works for.
Writer(s): J.C. Chandor
Director: J.C. Chandor
Production Co.(s): Untitled Entertainment; Washington Square Films; Benaroya Pictures; Before The Door Pictures; Margin Call; Sakonnet Capital Partners
The Story on the Screen
In Margin Call, a Wall Street investment firm faces the threat of annihilation due to problems of its own making—particularly owing to its greed. For nearly two years, it has been packaging and selling mortgage-backed securities that are highly speculative and nearly worthless, and it has profited greatly from the sales. But due to bookkeeping matters peculiar to the securities, it finds itself over-leveraged, having crossed the sacred outer boundaries of volatility upon which its trading model is based. As a result, if the value of securities drops by as little as 25%, its debt will exceed its market capitalization, the firm will go bankrupt, and the ramifications will be felt across the entire investment world.
The problem is first identified by Eric Dale, a numbers man and long-time risk analyst for the firm. But before he can complete his analysis, he is removed from his job by a sweeping and impersonal corporate downsizing move that also touches 80% of his peers. As he is escorted to the lobby by a security officer soon after his dismissal, he hands off to an earnest young associate, Peter Sullivan, a flash drive containing the project work to-date and delivers an ominous warning to be careful.
Late that night, as his coworkers unwind from the downsizing bloodbath, Peter completes the analysis and discovers its frightening implications for the financial vulnerability of the firm. He quickly marshals his coworkers—consisting at first of Seth, his peer, and Will, his superior—and informs them of the results. Will's quick comprehension of the seriousness of the matter sets off a cascading revelation within the immediate ranks of those at his level and above—which leads, in turn, to a sleepless night of strategizing by all concerned as they address the threat to the firm for which they work.
Wall Street executive Sam Rogers stands at the center of a rapidly building storm that threatens to annihilate the firm that he works for.
At the center of the rapidly building storm stands Sam Rogers, the main character, who oversees Will and Peter's group. When we-the-audience first meet Sam, earlier in the day, he is crying, not for his laid-off coworkers but for the impending loss of his dog, Ella, who suffers from a cancerous liver and whose health he has tried to sustain at a recent cost of nearly $1000 a day. But now, as the firm's vulnerability comes to light, he is all business. And although he has spent his life in a world that measures all value in terms of currency, he soon finds himself attempting to oppose the efforts of his superiors to solve the crisis through strategies of questionable morality.
When his boss, Jared Cohen, proposes dumping the toxic securities to get them off of the books—and keeping their worthlessness secret from the buyers—Sam resists, arguing that doing so will destroy not only the trust that the firm enjoys among its counterparties but the careers of the traders involved in the effort and, ultimately, the global financial market itself. And when Jared's boss, John Tuld, embraces the idea and sets it in motion, Sam opposes him as well and attempts to stand firm on a moral ground the height of which derives from ideas of trust and truth.
But Tuld knows that Sam is the key to the plan's viability. If Sam does not make a convincing case to his traders, the strategy will fail, and the firm will go down in ugly flames. And while Tuld shores up support from other involved parties—including Sarah Robertson, Eric's former boss—Jared works to create a contingency plan and seeks Will's commitment to act if Sam decides not to.
Sam's decision regarding whether to play along with an immoral plan to save the firm places him firmly at the crux of a conflict between moral uprightness and financial salvation.
Sam is at the focus of the storm, and his decision regarding whether to play along will determine whether the firm survives at the gargantuan cost of its trustworthiness, the careers of the traders, and the well-being of innocent parties and its peers. In this sense, he is a keep character who is attempting to maintain a moral uprightness in the face of temptations that threaten to tear down its walls.
Behind the Scenery
Margin Call is rife with potential issues from which a proposition can be constructed—from "devoting oneself to the gaining of money" to "disrespecting the value of trust." And the concerns of its characters also touch on issues of risk, foolishness, greed, honesty, and standards of right and wrong.
Margin Call is rife with potential issues, but at its core is the matter of survival.
But at its core, one overriding matter stands out above the rest—survival. In particular, the story appears to concern itself mainly with what people are willing to do when the survival of their world is at stake. The matter is referenced in conversations large and small throughout the film and stands as the unquestionable justification offered by Tuld for approving the plan to dump the toxic securities.
From a financial standpoint, the world in which the story takes place may be seen as a kind of Nirvana—a rarefied world full of ease and abundance, played out in the illusory environment of monetary value, where the inhabitants are well taken care of for performing tasks that produce no physically tangible results. The many references to money and salaries serve mainly to describe and reinforce the idea that the world is a version of heaven from which expulsion is equivalent to death. But the stability of the world itself is constantly in question, the survival of its ecosystem based on the insubstantial nature of speculation—and of the tacit agreement among human beings with regard to the value of things.
The ecosystem of the Wall Street firm is sustained by those who want and need it to exist.
The ecosystem is not an independent entity that exists on its own without those who identify themselves as or aspire to be its denizens. It is, rather, sustained by those who want and need it to exist, so that they have livelihoods and hopes of helping its survival. But as the opening scenes reveal, the right to habitation in that world is a tenuous matter, and one can be cast out at any moment.
The story, then, may be seen as pertaining to survival, both of the ecosystem and its denizens. And it is, in this sense, an examination of what those denizens will do to ensure that it survives and that they themselves survive and maintain their places within it. Will they sacrifice the well-being of the innocent others who contribute to its existence? Or will they allow it to collapse—to honor noble notions less tied to selfishness?
The storytellers deftly address the insubstantial nature of the story world—for example, through repeated references to the worthlessness of the investments that are causing the problem for the firm, the reliance on an equation to determine company actions, and the notion that money itself is nothing more than idea. And by doing so, they raise important questions regarding the value of that world and whether or not it is advisable to place its survival ahead of one's morals. But the argument is made ultimately in the person of Sam Rogers, who attempts to stand (keep) firm against the temptation to succumb to its seductions and assaults. Consequently, the proposition of the story may be rendered as:
- One should attempt to stand firm against the temptation to act selfishly in order to survive, because success in the attempt will prove him to possess a trustworthy moral character and reaffirm the superiority of selflessness.
In the end, Sam's need for financial security wins the day. He succumbs to the pressure from Jared and Tuld and delivers a speech to his traders to execute the plan, promising exorbitant bonuses for performance. The value of the securities drops dramatically during the day, but the sales targets are met and the company is saved from complete financial ruin—and survives to operate another day.
In the end, Sam's need for financial security wins the day and he tendered a skin-saving offer that he cannot refuse.
But no sooner is the trading day done than the layoff ax sweeps across his floor, ending the employment of the very traders who carried the day. And when he confronts Tuld shortly thereafter to tender his resignation, he is countered smoothly with the offer to remain for two years—which he cannot refuse, simply because he needs the money. And his defeat is compounded that night by the loss of the dog whom we know that he loved.
In Margin Call, then, the main character fails in an advisable endeavor, and we-the-audience are disappointed with the failure; consequently, the film may be said to represent a fail/disappointed story. And because the main character is left alone at the end without a companion—neither dog nor ex-wife—the ending is clearly unhappy.
Even Further Behind the Scenes
As with all stories, the individual scenes and moments in Margin Call comprise a healthy mixture of types of intent. Some involve gaining—for example, allies and commitments from the players; others concern regaining, such as the attempt to locate and bring back Eric Dale after his dismissal the cutting off of his company cell phone access. But an attention to the theme of the story, as identified by the grok approach and thematic imprinting, could have further enhanced a few of the already-strong interlude scenes and integrated them more clearly into the story.
Some interludes of the story could have been better connected to its theme.
As an example, when Peter and Seth visit a strip club early on to look for Eric, they discuss matters of money—in particular how much the strippers are likely to make. And although the discussion serves to paint Seth as one obsessed with the moneymaking ability of others, it focuses only on the money and his opinion that the strippers are paid well for what they do. If the assessment had been placed in the context of what the strippers, and others, do to survive, it would have aligned more clearly with the theme of the film. Likewise, the conversations that Peter and Seth engage in during their taxi rides could have been more firmly rooted in the story if they had alluded, even lightly, to the matter of survival.
And the side story involving Sam’s dog could have also been enhanced by connecting it to the thematic core. As presented in the film, it is quite effective at illustrating his emotional vulnerability and sense of impending loss, but by the time we find out about it, the dog’s impending death is a fait accompli. If, instead, there had been some grain of hope—some final attempt on the part of the veterinarian that might or might not succeed in saving her, the side story would have been more connected to the notion of survival—and Sam’s loss at end might have been even more deeply felt by us-the-audience, because we would hope for the success that would save the dog, however unlikely we expected it to be, and would identify more deeply his heartbreak at the end.