Rogue traders in the firing line
Margin Call addresses the ugly subject of dark trades at an investment bank before global economies fell apart in 2008. Madison Marriage looks at why it has resonated with audiences across the world.
The term ‘margin call’ probably wouldn’t be recognised by the majority of the cinema-going public. It seems improbable that a film tracing 24 hours at an investment bank as it comes to terms with its overexposure to the residential mortgage-backed securities market could reel in mass audiences.
Yet, on a wintry Saturday night, a South London cinema found itself packed with families, young professionals, students and teenagers eagerly anticipating the newly released Margin Call.
Part of what makes this film unusual is its director, JC Chandor. He was previously a barely known art-house director with less than a handful of works to his name: short film Despacito (2004), which had a mere $5,000 budget; and two short documentaries (Drawing First Blood and We Get to Win this Time, both 2002) following the cast of the first and second Rambo films 20 years after their release.
In his first foray into what is becoming known as the ‘Wall Street’ genre, Chandor has pulled off a commercially successful film set against a bleak backdrop of algorithms and volatility formulae at a waning investment bank.
One of the keys to the film’s success is that it constantly keeps the audience laughing with a fast-paced, witty script. Much of the humour comes from senior management at the bank confessing how little they understand of what the traders and risk officers actually do.
The head of the bank John Tuld (played by a forceful Jeremy Irons), opens an emergency board meeting by quipping, “It wasn’t brains that got me here.” Tuld then asks the trader who untangled the ruinous web of their risk exposure to explain the problem to him like a child.
Next rung down the hierarchical ladder is the head of the trading floor Sam Rogers (played by a convincing Kevin Spacey). When he is shown the same trader’s Bloomberg screen he waves a hand at it blustering, “You know I can’t read those things”.
Margin Call has been attacked for catering to the anti-banker mood, while others claim it is too generous in its treatment of investment bankers. The characters certainly discuss whether their actions are right or wrong, but no clear answer to their dilemma is given. Instead, the taut psychological pressure experienced at these banks on the eve of catastrophe dominates the drama.