Kevin Spacey in “Margin Call” – Betrayal and Business in the Hallowed Halls of Finance

Article first published as Kevin Spacey in Margin Call, Business and Betrayal in the Hallowed Halls of Financeon Technorati.

(February 14, 2011 – Reviewed at the 2011 Berlin Film Festival – in competition)

“Margin Call” is a pleasant surprise for audiences otherwise expecting a good vs. evil, black vs. white depiction of the now world-famous events that rocked finances from the United States high above Wall Street to far-reaching corners of the globe.


Kevin Spacey Stars in "Margin Call"

This story is personal.  It is a taut, emotional and extremely engaging look behind the scenes at the lives of the men and women at the top of the crash as they hurtle one by one towards the oncoming abyss. Decisions are made, sometimes at will and other times by force.

Zachery-Quinto_JC Chandler in "Margin Call"

JC Chandler directs Zachery Quinto in "Margin Call"

First-time feature director,  J. C. Chandor is no stranger to the world of finance, having grown up with a father who worked at Merrill Lynch. Chandor’s previous work in commercials, documentaries and short films served him well in this inaugural effort.  Expect to see a lot more of this very talented filmmaker.

The film opens on a busy day at an unidentified investment banking firm as the office is invaded by a group of executives who storm through the ranks as they pick out employees and send them to a fish-bowl office to be immediately fired.  By the end of the day, 80% of them are gone and we can smell contained panic in the room.

As soon as we hear Will Emerson, played by Paul Bettany, tell two young traders in his department, “Ignore it.  Put your head down and go back to work,” we know that this script is going to work on more than one level, for history tells us that it wasn’t just young traders who hid in the sand, it was entire corporations.  As the script unfolds, the story is peeled back layer by layer and we see the human toll work its way through the ranks.

Media stereotypes of evil bankers and an unwitting public are challenged by this film that succeeds in creating human multi-faceted characters out of those we might want to believe are true villains.  Have they sold their souls for a brass ring that will drag us all under to drown as they collect multi-million dollar bonuses?  Or, are some of them just following orders or to avoid being swept away into their own version of financial ruin?

These are flawed characters and it is the linked chain of those flaws that strangles our sense of right and wrenches it into darkness. When this is over we will have a newfound understanding of the weaknesses of the executive suite and a keener eye towards events foreboding our future.

Stanley Tucci in "Margin Call"

Stanley Tucci plays an investment banker with a secret in "Margin Call"

Perched in a glass office, the hatchet woman tells Eric Dale (Stanley Tucci) as she fires him, “These are extraordinary times,” then watches as her colleague hands him a magazine entitled, “Looking Ahead,” with a sailboat on the cover.

A few minutes later, personal effects in hand, Eric is headed for the elevator, leaving the company behind and the differing but subtle reactions of two young water-cooler friends immediately give us clues to their true characters as one, Seth Bregman (Penn Badgley), is only concerned with himself and the other, Peter Sullivan (Zachary Quinto), sympathizes with Eric. In fact, it is this moment of sympathy that propels them into a series of events that over the next 24 hours will change the world forever.

Betrayal after betrayal is revealed through small words and actions well played by the cast. At the elevator, in the boardroom, in the executive lunchroom, driving through the streets, few are who we think they are.

Reserved and cool one moment, Sam Rogers (Kevin Spacey at his usual best) grieves over his dying dog as his life crumbles around him. Commenting about this, Spacey tells us in an interview, “The dog is a metaphor for what is happening in the company and in his career.” “Don’t put everybody in the same wheelbarrow,” he continues.

John Tuld (played by Jeremy Irons), is head of the fictitious firm and admits when looking at the financials, “I can’t read these things.  Just speak to me in English…It wasn’t brains that got me here.”  We might have a moment of sympathy for him until his lack of understanding for those being affected is made clear when he says while enjoying his meal in his private executive dining room, that money is just a “picture on a piece of paper so we don’t have to kill each other to get something to eat.”

“Margin Call” is written and directed by J.C. Chandor.  It premiered in the United States at the Sundance Festival in 2011 and had its international premiere at the Berlin International Film Festival on February 11, 2011.

Kevin Spacey, Paul Bettany, Jeremy Irons, Zachary Quinto, Penn Badgley, Simon Baker, Mary McDonnell, Demi Moore and Stanley Tucci star.

The film is produced by Nichael Benaroya, neal Dodson, Zachary Quinto, Robert Ogden Barnum, Corey Moosa and Joe Jenckes; exec-produced by Cassion Elwes, Laura Rister, Joshua Blum, Kirk D’Amico, Randy Manis, Anthony Gudas, Michael Corso, Rose Ganguzza.

Director of Photography is Frank G. Demarco with production design by John Paino and costume design by Caroline Duncan.  The film is edited by Pete Beaudreau.

For more information about “Margin Call,” see