Friday, November 11, 2011

Margin Call

Margin Call - ***1/2

Directed by: J.C. Chandor

Starring: Kevin Spacey, Zachary Quinto, Paul Bettany, Stanley Tucci, Jeremy Irons, Simon Baker, Demi Moore, Penn Badgley

Review:  It is trying times we live in these days.  The financial crisis that started back in 2008 was one of epic proportions.  We have not seen an economy this bad since the great depression.  This is not speculation, it is a reality.  It has been tougher times than most, but one thing is for sure that we’ve all had to go through periods of belt tightening that we just assume not deal with.

Being in the financial field at my day job I will tell you that things didn’t happen quite as they are portrayed in ‘Margin Call.’  Despite the unreality, the movie goes a long way towards giving us an idea of what and why things happened the way they did in 2008.

Eric Dale (Tucci) is a risk analyst at a very large financial firm that remains nameless but quite resembles Goldman Sachs or more likely, Bear Stearns.  We are treated to a kick-in-the-gut opening segment where we see multiple people getting laid off.  Dale is next in line.  He gets no warning, no idea it’s coming, he is just plugging away in his office and gets a tap on the shoulder.  Next thing he knows his life is turned upside down as he no longer has a job.  He gets a “generous” 6 month severance package with full benefits.  But that is only enough to stop the bleeding.

This particularly hits home for me because as most of you probably don’t know, I was laid off during this financial crisis as well.  It was particularly chilling for me to see this opening scene as it was incredibly realistic.  Instead of a tap on the shoulder I got a standard email meeting invitation that said, without actually saying, “get your resume ready.” 

This was heartbreaking.  Getting laid off is a feeling nobody wants to experience.  It’s not just a kick in the gut; it’s not just that you lost your job; it’s that it makes you feel like a failure.  That’s what Dale was feeling after he was let go.  No matter what the circumstances of a lay off, that lingering doubt creeps into your head.  I was lucky enough to land on my feet but others weren’t.  Nobody knows what is going to happen after an event like that and it’s the scariest part.  How you look your friends and family in the face takes on a whole new meaning.  It seems like something small, but it all factors in.

It’s important to start with that in this movie to really set the tone.  In the wake of these layoffs at Dale’s company, he gives his big project he’s working on to one of his subordinates.  That person, Peter Sullivan (Quinto), figures out the rest of the equation Dale was working and discovers something big.  He calls his colleagues and boss back into the office late at night and they all learn the bad news.

The bad news is their firm made a very calculated, very bad mistake.  For those who don’t know what caused the financial crisis, I will explain it in the simplest terms I can.  Basically, firms like the fictional one in this movie decided to take a huge gamble.  They took mortgages of various grades (both good and bad) and packaged them together in large mortgage backed securities (MBS).  They then took these MBS’s and sold them off.  They were intentionally devaluing their assets and then pushing them off their books.  They knew they were going to be worth nothing.

Eventually, through Dale and Peter’s work, they discovered that when people begin to default on these mortgages, the MBS would decline in value, everyone would be trying to sell, and the market would see an epic collapse.  You see, at this time, mortgages were being given out to anyone.  It was not unheard of that somebody making $40K/year would be approved for a $600K mortgage.  By having a giant pool of mortgages smashed together via the MBS vehicle, they would be able to cover people that defaulted on payments.  Eventually they got too greedy, pushed too many of these bad loans together, too many people defaulted, and we ended up where we are today.

Now, right before all the defaults happened to drop the MBS’ value, companies like the fictional firm in ‘Margin Call’ began to sell off these securities.  It ended up costing them dearly as they lost billions and the ones who held on to these MBS’ fared even worse.

The action takes a little bit of a backseat to how everyone reacts to what they know is going to happen.  The best example of this may be Sam Rogers (Spacey).  Sam is a ‘company man’ who has made it over 30 years in this business and is still ‘alive.’  That’s the way they refer to it.  After the layoffs happen they ask each other “you still alive?”  It seems callous to talk about a job in terms of life and death but that’s how it feels.  You need money to live and a job provides you money, and therefore it’s your livelihood. 

Sam remains ‘alive’ even through everything that happens.  Despite the fact that he’s a survivor, the outcome is bleak.  Sam stays on and keeps his job not because he wants but because he “needs the money.”  This whole thing spun so far out of control that it garnered a life of its own.  We were powerless against the machine and it kept rolling along.  There’s nothing you can do but grin and bear it, we made our bed now we all had to lie in it.  Sam is the embodiment of how we are handcuffed by a system of our own making.

There is a scene where Sam is outside and Peter asks him a question.  “Did you tell your son, what’s about to happen?” he asks.  Sam’s reply, with a solemn look of realization crossing his face, “No, I hadn’t even thoug-“ it is this instant that Sam realizes that it’s not just about his firm.  This whole thing is going to affect everyone and touch everyone’s lives in one way or another. 

‘Margin Call’ as a film made a smart move.  With the main character of the film being the economy, they took smaller character actors who had experience with getting the most out of small roles.  Tucci’s performance as Dale is great.  Coming away from every movie Tucci is in, you get a great feeling.  He always strikes as someone who has his priorities straight.  In nearly every instance you feel as though his character is someone you can get behind.  That is exactly what he is here.

Spacey may have given his best performance in years as Sam.  Showing a man who has little left in his life besides his pride, even that gets sold off for money in the end.  He’s not proud of what he’s done and the lives he’s going to affect, but it had to be done and he was the one who had to do it.

The writing was extremely good and it was great performances all around.  The direction, from a first timer in J.C. Chandor, is a little lacking but the writing and performances make up for those deficiencies.

I would say this is definitely worth your time.

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