Margin Call is a disaster movie without any explosions. Or rather, it's a movie about the initial response and attempts to control what could become a calamitous disaster. It's like the first few minutes of Contagion, when a deadly disease—in this case, toxic assets poised to take down the entire global financial system—is discovered but has yet to infect too many people. But instead of hazmat suits and gas masks, the players here are all clad in bespoke Gucci pinstripes.
Margin Call is a fictionalized take on the first moments of the 2008 financial crisis. Set in a Wall Street investment firm over the course of 24 hours, Call dramatizes the inner workings and boardroom drama of a firm on the brink of collapse. The film begins at the end of a brutal workday in the unnamed firm; dozens of staff members are laid off, the first sign of trouble. One of those workers (Stanley Tucci) is on to something amiss in the firm. As security escorts him out of the building, he hands a flash drive to his young protégé, Peter Sullivan (Zachary Quinto), telling him to "be careful." Sullivan—a rocket scientist turned junior analyst, no joke—takes a look at the data and finds the reason for his boss's concern. The data shows that a serious storm is on the horizon for the firm—one that could jeopardize the company's future and seriously affect the market at large.
The details of exactly what's wrong are never fully explained (nor is the meaning of "margin call," for that matter). To everyday viewers and nonsubscribers of The Wall Street Journal, the jargon and technical speak will just sound like mortgage-backed mumbo jumbo. But the gist of it is clear: the company has a heap of financial assets that are worthless, and if they don't sell off everything as soon as possible, the company will go belly up. But the problem is, if the firm's traders go on a selling spree and knowingly spread their toxic securities around to more vulnerable banks, the entire market could collapse.
Will the firm in question own up to their problem and suffer the consequences, or will they deceitfully sell off their rotten cache and try to save their own skin (at the expense of causing many others to suffer)? This is the central conflict of the film. During an all-nighter between the discovery of the problem and the decisive start of trading, the bigwigs at the firm debate the options before them. Senior partners are woken up, flown in by helicopter and high-level meetings are convened. Corruption, deceit, and dog-eat-dog ethics unfurl in a rapid-fire, dialogue-heavy descent into financial calamity.
Most central to the film's conflict are Sam Rogers (Kevin Spacey) and head honcho John Tuld (Jeremy Irons), who more or less represent the film's protagonist and antagonist, respectively. As Rogers, Spacey oversees the trading practices of the firm. He's a company man but also committed to ethics; he's reticent to start a fire sale simply for the sake of keeping the firm afloat. As the amoral man atop the food chain, Irons spends the film trying to convince Spacey to forget about what's right and focus on what's best for the firm. Together Spacey and Irons represent the best of a strong ensemble of actors; their back-and-forth banter gets to the heart of the film's ethical concerns and its broader aim to understand the factors and mindsets that lead so many to this place.