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 traders are a little nerdy, occasionally self-centred, but mostly incredibly nervous about losing a career they have spent several years working towards. The film opens with a team of grim-faced women from human resources (HR) marching towards the trade floor.
The mood is tense – each trader pretends to focus on their computer screen in the hope that the firing squad will not take aim. “Don’t watch,” hardened trader Will Emerson (played to perfection by Paul Bettany) advises a panic-stricken 23-year-old colleague. When the cull is over, the traders that have survived describe themselves as “alive”; without their career they might as well be dead.
The key dismissal is that of Eric Dale, head of risk management at the bank. His exit interview with the senior HR team is a poignant example of how emotionally illiterate corporate communication can be. An HR employee explains Dale must leave the office immediately under security escort, while attempting to explain these measures are not “punitive”. A shocked Dale struggles to understand what she means. “She’s trying to apologise,” an embarrassed colleague translates.
Like any good movie should, it pushes the audience to ask questions, some more important than others: How realistic was Demi Moore’s hemline? Which ‘anonymous’ investment bank is the film based on? Did its employees have a choice, moral or financial, on offloading dodgy products to the rest of the financial community? With so much left unanswered, the film avoids making an easy moral judgement on the financial industry.
However, it does quietly take a stance on Western expectations of living standards, from home ownership and flashy cars to veterinary bills and divorce pay-outs. Margin Call’s uncomfortable conclusion is that the source of the financial crisis was not those naughty bankers trading worthless securities, but the cinema-going public itself.