One Good Thing: Wall Street traders behave badly in the movie Margin Call

I think it was on my third or fourth viewing of margin callthe 2011 corporate thriller starring Zachary Quinto and Jeremy Irons, that I realized I finally got it Grateful Dead fans.

Of course I knew the Dead; I grew up across the river from Vermont. I thought they were just…good. “Friend of the Devil” was a fun song. Cherry Garcia is a great ice cream flavor. But why did such an average-looking, unexceptional to me band inspire such a devoted fan base? Why would people follow them, spending thousands of dollars to produce and trade bootlegs of their favorite live sets?

I feel margin call the way Deadheads feel about the dead. Everyone thinks this movie is a pretty routine drama, not particularly noteworthy. Most people don’t feel the obsessive, fanatical love I have for her. This must be the struggle of the Deadheads: confusion and frustration that the whole world hasn’t fallen so rapturously in love with the art they love so much. The moment Quinto pulls out his headphones and realizes that the bank where he works is in dire straits, it clicked for me.

Deadheads sometimes talk about the “X factor”: the indescribable aspect of a performance that elevates it to a higher level. There are certainly aspects of my love for margin call which are just as difficult to put into words. On some level, either you find Jeremy Irons telling Quinto to “talk like you might to a young kid. Or a golden retriever. It wasn’t brains that brought me here”, to be funny, or not.

But to a large extent, my love for margin call boils down to being the one film that, more than any other, seems to understand the modern workplace (or at least the office workplace) and the moral compromises involved in living and thriving in this world.

Some introductions Margin Remarks

Peter Sullivan (Zachary Quinto), a partner in the Office of Risk Assessment and Management, and junior analyst Seth Bregman (Penn Badgley), really had no idea what they were getting into.
Frank DeMarco/Roadhouse Attractions

In case you’re not already a die-hard marginalist: margin call chronicles a day in the life of an investment bank at the onset of the 2008 financial crisis. Conditions are tough from the start; the film opens with Eric Dale (Stanley Tucci), the head of corporate risk management, who gets fired during the latest round of layoffs. Before leaving the building, Dale throws a flash drive at his protege, former rocket scientist Peter Sullivan (Zachary Quinto). His last words, as the elevator closes, are “be careful”. It doesn’t take long for Sullivan to delve into Dale’s spreadsheet and realize that if the value of the company’s mortgage-backed investments were to drop in value, even by a modest amount, it could lead to the bankruptcy of the company.

Sullivan panics and tells his boss, Will Emerson (a wonderfully sardonic Paul Bettany), who panics and tells his boss, Sam Rogers (Kevin Spacey), who reluctantly tells his much younger boss Jared Cohen (Simon Baker), who eventually calls company CEO John Tuld for a 4 a.m. meeting. Portrayed with remarkable charisma and menace by Jeremy Irons, Tuld decides how to handle the toxic assets, which he describes as “the biggest bag of smelly poop ever assembled in the history of capitalism”. His decision is stunning and his colleagues immediately realize what it means. The rest of the film chronicles their attempt to come to terms with all of this.

It doesn’t sound like the most fascinating material. And as I learned the hard way, after forcing various friends and loved ones to watch it with me, margin call is not for everyone. It belongs to the microgenre that writer Max Read memorably labeled “halogencore”: It and peers like Michael Clayton, The wizard, Broken glassand silver ball are thrillers set in offices, where the drama is fueled by white-collar misconduct or incompetence, and where the characters grow up learning something new about the bureaucracy to which they have devoted part of their lives .

Movies like this, much like all mid-budget adult dramas that don’t feature superheroes, are hard to make these days. But they scratch a very particular itch. They thrive on specificity, on the norms and jargon of a particular institution. margin callThe dialogue (“the standard VAR pattern”, “go block by block”, “we fill or we kill at 65”) approximates John Le Carré’s spy cant in its density. But writer-director JC Chandor assumes the viewer is smart and quick to learn, and can grasp what they need to grasp. Like the Grateful Dead, it’s here for superfans first and foremost.

The banality of greed

Jeremy Irons in an image from Margin Call.

“So you believe [because] we may have put a few people out of business today that it was all for naught? You’ve been doing this every day for almost 40 years, Sam,” John Tuld (Jeremy Irons) says to a subordinate.
Frank DeMarco/Roadhouse Attractions

Chandor’s script is obsessed with the moral implications of white-collar work, and specifically how workers deal with and adapt to those implications. Some become disgusted with themselves, even self-pity, like Spacey and Tucci’s characters; the latter grows nostalgic about his earlier career as a structural engineer, building bridges that helped real people, rather than mixing up the numbers. Some come with grandiose self-rationalizations as to why what they do doesn’t matter (“It’s just silversays the Irons character, “it’s compound”) or somehow help the middle class (“If people want to live like this, in their cars and those fucking big houses they can’t even afford, then you’re needed,” Bettany warns a young colleague) .

This is for me the main attraction of margin call. It’s a film that takes work – office work, people sitting at desks typing on laptops – seriously, as an activity with moral significance. And what sets it apart from other films, even some other halogenated films, is that the moral questions it asks are about the work itself, not some extreme violation outside of that work’s code of ethics. . Broken glass is about a journalist making up stories out of thin air; Michael Clayton is about a company that hires hitmen to assassinate would-be whistleblowers as part of a cover-up.

The choice CEO John Tuld (Irons) makes amid margin call, on the other hand, is not a crime. When someone brings up the possibility of “federal authorities” stopping the movement, executive Ramesh Shah (Aasif Mandvi), believed to be a lawyer, pushes back: “They can slow you down. They can’t stop you. It’s a choices they can make in their business. It’s part of the job of a banker. And it will hurt many, many people.”

margin call is steeped in small moments showing how this philosophy corrupts those who embrace it. At one point, Peter Sullivan (Quinto) and his young colleague Seth Bregman (Penn Badgley) are at a strip club, looking for Eric Dale (Tucci). Bregman immediately begins speculating on the dancers’ one-night pay. Will Emerson (Bettany) tells Sullivan and Bregman that he made $2.5 million in a year, but it wasn’t that great, because “you learn to spend what’s in your pocket.” Sam Rogers (Spacey) clearly sees himself as the man in the room with a real conscience, but it never occurs to him that the company’s actions could destroy his son’s career at another bank. The company comes before its own child.

These men (and apart from an underutilized Demi Moore, they are all men) have seen themselves deformed, in greater or lesser ways, by their work, by work for which they are paid obscene sums and that they do not intend to stop one day. .

Near the end of the film, Rogers gives a pep talk to a room of traders, “People are going to say some very nasty things about what we’re doing here today, and what you’ve spent some of your life,” he told them. “But trust that on the whole our skills have not been wasted. We have achieved much and our talents have been used for the greater good. He is a man who does something he knows is wrong, and not only that, but wields his power to make dozens of other people do something he knows is wrong.The brilliance of the film is his illustration of why he, and so many others like him, make that choice over and over and over again.

margin call is available to stream on netflix and Hulu. For more recommendations from the world of culture, check out the A good thing archives.