The world documented in the financial thriller Margin Call feels almost like ancient history by now. Set back in the good ole days when many Americans were still living high on the hog, the film takes place in a Manhattan investment bank on the precipice of the 2008 financial meltdown. Talented first time director and writer J.C. Chandor filmed Margin Call almost entirely in the fluorescent-lit offices of a Manhattan investment bank, a cloistered environment that can often feel like a glass castle separated from the world below by a moat of money. At this fictitious Wall Street firm, a distinct pecking order separates the young pup traders with the stink of college still on them from corner-office management, most of whom know far too much about the ins and outs of keeping their business afloat to keep their souls untarnished. Upper-level manager Will Emerson (Paul Bettany) is in the latter camp, having figured out a way to justify his enormous salary and upscale lifestyle — but even he seems more exhausted than triumphant in the wake of his dollar-chasing.
Chandor has a real knack for capturing the airless, cutthroat dimension to the modern workplace. The film opens as a throng of suits with white boxes arrives to drop the ax on a large portion of the firm's staff, including senior risk management executive Eric Dale (Stanley Tucci). Dale has been working out a disturbing formula just as he's shown the door, which suggests the firm is built on worthless securities and is racing at 80 mph toward a brick wall. When a brilliant young trader Peter Sullivan (Zachary Quinto) gets a hold of Dale's data, he confirms the worst. A cadre of the firm's top officials convenes, including billionaire CEO John Tuld (Jeremy Irons), who copters in to the building's rooftop. Their all-night jam session on how to avert disaster come morning is filled with angst, regret, and cockiness. The moral conscience at the center of the maelstrom is smooth-talking, trading floor guru Sam Rogers (Kevin Spacey), who's simultaneously dealing with a dying dog and the withering of his own faith in the business he's labored in for the past 34 years. When he sees how the big bosses plan to weasel their way back into solvency, he's disgusted.
Part of what makes the investment bankers less loathsome is their expression of an essential truth about American life. Resembling nothing so much as swindlers in Brooks Brothers suits, men like Emerson justify making a mint because the ordinary people out there are just as greedy. If someone is too stupid to keep their own greed in check, Emerson reasons, then why should the traders? It's the big-money version of the carnival barker eyeing a crowd of marks and trying to figure out the best way to fleece the pitiful rubes of their green. Margin Call shows how people who move astronomical sums of money all day long begin to see it as an abstraction, and their often questionable behavior is similarly untethered to the usual rules and moral codes. They naturally become detached from the real-world consequences their skyscraper roulette-playing has on the peons below.
Beyond its interesting ensemble cast and a fairly well-placed story, Margin Call's most significant revelation may be what it has to say about America's tenuous hold on meaningful labor. The film suggests these brainy, Ivy League-educated men and women who could be building bridges or curing cancer are instead engaged in the unproductive business of moving money around and amassing huge fortunes in the process. Margin Call is a film about the specific perversities of Wall Street, but viewers may see something familiar in its portrait of a workplace where the bottom line is everything and people are mere impediments in the Darwinian survival of the fittest that's transposed to the modern workplace.