A New York investment bank undertakes a massive series of unexpected lay-offs. One of those forced into redundancy is risk assessment manager Eric Dale (Stanley Tucci), who leaves behind research that points to a previously-unknown risk in the bank’s portfolio. When that research is finished by risk analyst Peter Sullivan (Zachary Quinto), it sets off a chain of events over the following 24 hours that put the entire bank at risk of collapse.
There is a popular myth that you cannot make a narrative feature without sympathetic characters; that audiences demand to have someone for whom to root if they are to find a story interesting. This belief is patently untrue, of course, but making a film about unlikable people does require a slightly stronger story and direction than the average – just in order to compensate.
A case in point is the 2011 American drama Margin Call, written and directed by J.C. Chandor. It is a fictionalised account of events that contributed to the 2008 global financial crisis. It is about a fictional company trading in fictionalised mortgage debt, but it is not hard to see Lehman Brothers peeking out from behind the furniture. It is, then, a film about bankers, that most reviled of professional classes, in the middle of a once-in-a-career financial disaster. That seems something of a hard sell to a popular audience.
It works spectacularly well. Chandor’s screenplay boasts a simple, easy-to-follow structure: essentially meeting after meeting takes place over the course of the film, each time pushing the crisis up to a higher level of management: from Sullivan to head of trading Will Emerson (Paul Bettany), from Emerson to head of sales Sam Rogers (Kevin Spacey), from Rogers to division chief Jared Cohn (Simon Baker), and from Cohn to an entire board led by CEO John Tuld (Jeremy Irons). The simple story structure allows Chandor to explain the precise nature of the financial crisis to a broad audience, and to focus on dialogue and enriching character.
Ultimately none of these characters are nice people. They all earn increasingly scandalous amounts of money, and make strategic decisions with the knowledge that it will destroy the lives of countless others. Not only does the wealth increase up the corporate chain, so does the inhumanity. At the start of the film, Spacey’s Sam Rogers seems monstrous. By the end, in comparison to Iron’s positively reprehensible Tuld, Rogers seems comparatively quite sympathetic.
It is a dialogue-heavy film, and the dialogue sparks with smarts and tremendous energy. It is a gift for each member of the cast: not just those mentioned above but also Demi Moore as a key risk manager and Penn Badgley as a hopelessly naive colleague of Sullivan’s; someone who has bought wholesale into the high-flying corporate lifestyle. They are not good people, but they feel like real people. Spacey, Bettany, Quinto, Moore, and particularly Stanley Tucci take Chandor’s words and use them to create a believable reality. While written as a film, it would not be difficult to transform Margin Call into a theatrical play. The dialogue and character is all pretty much complete.
You can tell a story out of anything, and you can tell a story about anybody, but the more technical the story gets and the more unsympathetic the characters become make telling that story harder. Margin Call is very well told.