I think it was on my third or fourth viewing of Margin Call, the 2011 corporate thriller starring Zachary Quinto and Jeremy Irons, that I realized I finally understood Grateful Dead fans.
I was of course familiar with the Dead; I grew up across the river from Vermont. I thought they were just … fine. “Friend of the Devil” was a fun song. Cherry Garcia is an okay ice cream flavor. But why did a band so average-seeming, so unexceptional to me, inspire such a dedicated fanbase? Why would people follow them around, spending thousands of dollars producing and trading bootlegs of their favorite live sets?
I feel about Margin Call the way Deadheads feel about the Dead. Everyone thinks this movie is a fairly routine, not particularly notable drama. Most people don’t get the obsessive, fanatical love I have for it. This must be the Deadheads’ struggle: confusion and frustration that the whole world hasn’t fallen as rapturously in love with the art they love so much. Around the moment that Quinto takes out his headphones and realizes the bank where he works is in desperate, desperate trouble, it clicked for me.
Deadheads sometimes talk about the “X factor”: the indescribable aspect of a performance that elevates it to a higher level. There are certainly aspects of my love for Margin Call that are similarly difficult to put into words. At some level, either you find Jeremy Irons telling Quinto to “speak as you might to a young child. Or a golden retriever. It wasn’t brains that brought me here,” to be funny, or you don’t.
But to a large degree, my love for Margin Call boils down to it being the one film that, more than any other, seems to understand the modern workplace (or at least the office workplace), and the moral compromises involved in living and thriving in that world.
Some introductory Margin notes
In case you aren’t already a diehard Marginalist: Margin Call chronicles a day in the life of an investment bank at the outset of the financial crisis of 2008. Conditions are rough from the start; the film begins with Eric Dale (Stanley Tucci), the head of risk management at the firm, getting booted in the latest round of layoffs. Before leaving the building, Dale tosses a flash drive to his protégé, the erstwhile rocket scientist Peter Sullivan (Zachary Quinto). His last words, as the elevator closes, are “be careful.” It doesn’t take long for Sullivan to dive into Dale’s spreadsheet and realize that if the firm’s mortgage-backed investments fall in value by even a modest amount, it could bankrupt the company.
Sullivan freaks out and tells his boss, Will Emerson (a wonderfully sardonic Paul Bettany), who freaks out and tells his boss, Sam Rogers (Kevin Spacey), who grudgingly tells his much-younger boss Jared Cohen (Simon Baker), who finally calls in the firm’s CEO John Tuld for a 4 am meeting. Portrayed with remarkable charisma and menace by Jeremy Irons, Tuld decides how to deal with the toxic assets, which he describes as “the biggest bag of odorous excrement ever assembled in the history of capitalism.” His decision is astonishing, and his colleagues immediately realize what it means. The rest of the film chronicles their attempt to come to terms with it all.
This does not sound like the most riveting of material. And as I have learned the hard way, after forcing various friends and loved ones to watch it with me, Margin Call is not for everyone. It belongs to the micro-genre that the writer Max Read memorably labeled “halogencore”: It and peers like Michael Clayton, The Assistant, Shattered Glass, and Moneyball are thrillers set in offices, where the drama is fueled by white-collar misconduct or incompetence, and where the characters grow by learning something new about the bureaucracy to which they’ve given a portion of their lives.
Movies like that, much like all mid-budget dramas meant for adults and not featuring superheroes, are hard to get made these days. But they scratch a very particular itch. They thrive on specificity, on the norms and jargon of a particular institution. Margin Call’s dialogue (“the standard VAR model,” “go block by block,” “we’re fill or kill at 65”) approaches the spy cant of John Le Carré in its density. But writer-director J.C. Chandor assumes the viewer is smart and a quick learner, and can grasp what they need to grasp. Like the Grateful Dead, he’s here for the superfans first and foremost.
The banality of greed
Chandor’s script is obsessed with the moral implications of white-collar work, and specifically how workers cope with and adapt to those implications. Some become self-loathing, even self-pitying, like the Spacey and Tucci characters; the latter waxes nostalgic about his prior career as a structural engineer, building bridges that helped actual people, rather than shuffling numbers around. Some come up with grandiose self-rationalizations for why what they’re doing either doesn’t matter (“It’s just money,” Irons’s character says, “it’s made up”) or is somehow helping the middle class (“If people want to live like this, in their cars and the big fucking houses they can’t even pay for, then you’re necessary,” Bettany admonishes a younger colleague).
This, to me, is the main attraction of Margin Call. It’s a movie that takes work — office work, people sitting at desks typing stuff into laptops — seriously, as an activity with moral significance. And what sets it apart from other films, even some other halogencore films, is that the moral questions it asks are about the work itself, not some extreme violation outside that work’s code of ethics. Shattered Glass is about a reporter making up stories out of whole cloth; Michael Clayton is about a corporation hiring hitmen to murder potential whistleblowers as part of a coverup.
The choice that CEO John Tuld (Irons) makes in the middle of Margin Call, by contrast, is not a crime. When someone raises the prospects of “the feds” stopping the move, executive Ramesh Shah (Aasif Mandvi), implied to be a lawyer, pushes back: “They can slow you down. They can’t stop you.” This is a choice they can make in the course of doing business. It’s just part of being a banker. And it will hurt many, many people.
Margin Call is suffused with small moments showing how this ethos corrupts the people who embrace it. At one point, Peter Sullivan (Quinto) and his younger colleague Seth Bregman (Penn Badgley) are at a strip club, looking for Eric Dale (Tucci). Bregman immediately starts speculating about how much the dancers make in a night. Will Emerson (Bettany) tells Sullivan and Bregman that he made $2.5 million in a year, but it wasn’t that great, because “you learn to spend what’s in your pocket.” Sam Rogers (Spacey) clearly thinks of himself as the man in the room with a real conscience, but it never occurs to him that the firm’s actions might destroy the career of his son at another bank. The firm comes before his own child.
These men (and apart from an underutilized Demi Moore, they’re all men) have seen themselves warped, in ways large and small, by their work, by work for which they are paid obscene amounts and which they have no intention of ever stopping.
Toward the end of the film, Rogers is giving a pep talk to a room of traders, “People are going to say some very nasty things about what we do here today, and about what you’ve dedicated a portion of your lives to,” he tells them. “But have faith that in the bigger picture, our skills have not been wasted. We have accomplished much, and our talents have been used for the greater good.” This is a man doing something he knows is wrong, and not just that but wielding his power to make dozens of other people do something he knows is wrong. The brilliance of the movie is its illustration of why he, and so many like him, make that choice, again and again and again.