Author: J.C. Chandor
Writer’s Potential: 4
When a mathematician discovers a revenue shortfall, a group of Wall Street investors must pull an all-nighter in order to figure out how to solve the crisis.
Talking heads on the radio announce the trading day is about to close, and word around Wall Street is that Goldstone Sterns Investment Bank plans to lay off 5000 employees. On the trading floor of Goldston Sterns, risk assessment analyst PETER SULLIVAN (27) and his buddy, SETH (23), watch in terror as human resource personnel sweeps the floor. An HR person taps Peter on the shoulder, asking if his name is Eric Dale. Peter breathes a sigh of relief as he tells her no. ERIC (mid-40s) is his boss. He’s led into a conference room, where HR lawyer LAUREN BRATBERG waits. She offers him a small severance package and gives him 24 hours to think it over. She also explains that, despite his 19 years of loyal service, for security purposes she’s disabling his phone and computer. Eric is shocked and humiliated. He asks about the work he’s in the middle of right now. Lauren explains they have a contingency plan and asks a security guard to escort Eric to his office to collect his things. Eric’s boss, WILL, greets Eric sadly, apologizing for what happened. Eric asks whose decision it was: SAM ROGERS or SARAH ROBERTSON? Will won’t answer. Eric assumes it was Sarah.
Peter and Seth say their goodbyes to Eric. Eric asks Peter to walk him outside. Eric gives Peter a USB drive and says it’s something he was working on and couldn’t finish. He trusts Peter to finish it, but he warns him to be careful. Peter is baffled. Will meets with Sam (mid-60s), who has just learned his dog is dying. Will isn’t sure how to react. He simply informs Sam that the remaining trading floor personnel are ready for him. Sam steps out on the floor, which looks like a ghost town. The employees have been reduced by 80%. Sam gives a rousing speech to the remaining employees, saying they survived because they’re better, and GS will weather this storm. Down on the street, Eric tries to use his phone. They’ve already deactivated it. He sees Sarah across the street and confronts her. She says nothing in response. Eric drops the phone and storms away. Seth and Peter sit on the trading floor, trying to recover. Seth invites Peter out for a drink, but Peter tells him he needs to stay and keep working. Once he’s alone, Peter looks at the hard drive Eric left for him. He’s stunned by what he discovers. He tries calling Eric, but the phone is disabled. Instead, he calls Seth, who is drinking with other employees, including Will. He orders Seth to bring Will back to the office. Seth protests that it’s after 10, but the tone of Peter’s voice tells him it’s serious. Seth and Will arrive at the office. Peter explains what’s happening to them: their investments are starting to test volatility boundaries, and if things start heading in the wrong direction, the bank stands to lose just over $1 trillion.
Will calls Eric at home, but he isn’t there. His wife politely takes a message. She doesn’t know he’s been fired. Will calls a car for Peter and Seth, ordering them to go find Eric. Will calls Sam, who’s reluctant to return to work. When Will says this isn’t something he can e-mail, Sam knows it’s bad and comes in. Peter and Seth wander aimlessly, failing to find Eric. They talk about the obscene amounts of money their superiors make and speculate on what the real bosses make. Sam meets with Will, who relays in detail everything that happened between Eric and Peter, and what Peter just explained to him about the bank’s financial situation. Sam wants to know where Peter is. Will calls Peter and Seth and orders them to return to the office. They get stuck in traffic, but Will is breathing down their necks, so they abandon the car and take the subway. Will and Sam meet Peter and Seth at the elevator and lead them into the executive board room, where Sarah, JARED COHEN (mid-40s, one of the top dogs of the company), and several lawyers wait. Sam explains everything yet again. Sarah asks about Peter’s credentials. He explains that he’s, essentially, a rocket scientist. He entered the financial world because it pays better. Their lawyers verify Peter’s numbers. Jared asks how long it would take them to quietly sell the bad mortgage securities. Sam says it’ll be at least four weeks, during which time they will continue to lose money and have to sell more.
Based on Jared’s line of reasoning, Sam realizes Jared wants to simply sell everything, all at once, firing the first shot on a tanking market. Sarah asks for time to confirm the numbers. Jared insists that they find Eric, because he’s the only one other than them who knows anything about this. Will takes Peter and Seth up to a roof landing on the 45th floor. After waxing philosophically about why people feel anxious on rooftops (which he attributes to people fearing they might jump rather than that they might fall), Will explains to Peter and Seth that Jared’s planning to dump everything. Peter and Seth are shocked that they can even do this. Will explains that if they know something in advance of the other banks on Wall Street, they can capitalize on it and lose virtually nothing. It doesn’t matter if everyone else loses everything. Seth pointedly asks Will what he does with all his money. Will thinks about it and explains, surprising himself by how much he spends on booze and strippers. They see a corporate helicopter arriving on the helipad above. Will realizes the truly important executives have arrived. Sarah arrives at Sam’s office to tell him and Jared what she and the other lawyers have uncovered. She says everything Peter calculated is accurate. He killed their cash cow, which was built on a faulty equation, and the only choice is to sell.
Jared brings Sam and Sarah to the elevators. He’s called CEO JOHN TULD. They reconvene with Will, Peter, and Seth, and they all head up to the top floor. Jared sternly tells the others to tell the truth at all costs. Not even Peter is smart enough to lie his way out of this. They all file into Tuld’s board room. He’s a surprisingly genial man. He greets them kindly and asks Peter to explain to him what happened. Peter goes through it all again. Tuld considers all the information and tells them all that there are three ways to succeed on Wall Street: be first, be smarter, or cheat. Tuld refuses to cheat, and although he has a lot of smart people working under him, he thinks it would be smarter to be first. Jared is pleased that Tuld is backing his plan. Tuld asks Sam how they would do it. Sam explains that everybody has to be on this, and they need to work fast, because by noon word will be out, and what they’re trying to sell will be worthless. Worse than that, the SEC will start poking their noses into what they’re doing. Sam warns Tuld that if they do this, they are killing the mortgage market, and they will lose the buyers they’re selling to forever. Tuld is fine with that, so long as their bank weathers the storm. He realizes that this is the start of their troubles, not the end, but when Sam points out that it’s only the start because Tuld is starting it, Tuld explains that he’d prefer to start than finish. Tuld asks about Eric. When he realizes nobody has found him, he sends his private security team to track him down.
Downstairs, Eric’s wife calls Will. She says he’s come home, but he refuses to speak to them. Knowing that Tuld’s men are on their way, Will drags Seth with him to warn Eric. Tuld explains to Sarah that her head is on the chopping block for this. She’s disappointed, but she understands. He asks her to stay until the markets close. Sarah goes to her office and tries to cry, but she can’t. She’s too numb. Peter gets coffee from a street vendor. A PRETTY GIRL passes by who he seems to know. Peter asks about her father. She half-jokingly asks if Peter has any good tips for her. He says, with stone-faced seriousness, “Sell.” She’s alarmed by his demeanor. Will and Seth arrive at Eric’s fancy townhouse. They explain everything that’s happening to him and warn him that Tuld’s men are coming, and either he can accept their offer of a massive bonus in exchange for silence, or he can prepare for them to fight him on his meager severance package. Eric laments his career, recalling his days as an engineer, building bridges to actually help people instead of coming up with equations to screw people. Will and Seth leave just as Tuld’s men arrive.
Tuld offers reluctant Sam a massive bonus for his cooperation. Sam reluctantly accepts it. He goes down to smoke a cigarette and finds Peter, still outside. Peter asks if they’re all getting fired. Sam assumes they are. Peter says he knows Sam’s son, and he’s a nice person. He asks if Sam has told his son about what’s happening. Sam says it didn’t even occur to him. Sam asks about Peter’s father. Another helicopter lands on the roof. Peter asks if he’s ever done anything like this before. Sam says no. Peter wonders if it’s the right thing to do. Neither of them are sure. Sam doesn’t want to think about the mess it will create. Sadly, they both go upstairs. In the executive bathroom, Sam bawls his eyes out. He tries to stop himself when he hears someone enter, but he can’t. It’s Jared. Seth explains that he knows he’s fired, but this is all he’s ever wanted to do. Jared apologizes with surprising sincerity. Eric arrives and meets with Sarah. After some awkward small talk, Eric agrees to take the bonus. The remaining employees gather for their morning meeting. Sam lays everything on the line, reluctantly telling them that what they’re doing will destroy their own jobs, but they have to do it to save Goldstone Sterns. Tuld arrives to give a similarly inspirational speech. A montage follows, showing the employees selling quickly, then congratulating themselves when they succeed. That night, Sam buries his dead dog in the backyard of his former home. His ex-wife, MARY, confronts him, fearing he’s a burglar. When she sees it’s Sam, she tells him he doesn’t live here anymore. Sam explains about the dog and tells her this was where she belonged. Mary leaves Sam to continuing digging.
Margin Call attempts to humanize the architects of the 2008 stock market crash. Unfortunately, although the writer creates situations designed to elicit sympathy, the writer fails to create characters complex enough to be sympathetic. The script isn’t much more than redundant scenes of people talking in board rooms, explaining and re-explaining the reasons for the crash, which might have been compelling if the dialogue weren’t so awful. As written, it merits a pass.
The first act rushes past the character introductions and goes straight to the layoffs, evoking an atmosphere of fear among the bankers. Eric’s firing, his ominous warning to Peter, and Peter’s subsequent discover of big problems serves as an excellent setup for a thriller that never arrives. After his discovery, the story settles into an annoyingly repetitive pattern of introducing new characters—each higher up the corporate ladder—to explain the exact same story to. The explanations are worded almost identically, and the reactions of each person is virtually the same. In other words, the script just spins its wheels for almost its entire 92-page length. The writer never makes any real effort to build any suspense in what’s happening to the characters’ jobs and place of employment. Even the subplot about the mysteriously missing Eric lacks suspense, because nobody really cares about him as a person. They only care about what he knows.
In the third act, the writer attempts in vain to paint these characters with a sympathetic brush. However, they aren’t really characters. With the exception of Sam’s cloying symbolic dog, the writer hardly reveals a thing about these characters beyond their jobs at the bank. They exist to dispense information to the other characters (and, by extension, the audience). The writer creates a perfect opportunity to show that these people who are demonized by the news media and the government have lives beyond their jobs, have goals and desires that aren’t simply rooted in greed, and maybe spend a few minutes considering the ethical dilemma of their choice. Unfortunately, the writer never capitalizes on this—the only ethical dilemma anyone’s worried about is how much money they’ll lose, which makes it extremely difficult for the audience to feel any response other than rage when they start having tearful breakdowns about losing their jobs—the same jobs that they, by their own admission, sabotaged by going too far to mess with the system.
The fact that the characters are so weak is a huge problem, because this is a barely a story. It’s mostly people sitting around trading floors, offices, and board rooms, bluntly explaining everything. Without strong characters to make what they’re discussing compelling, it’s hard to get invested in anything that’s happening in the story. Adding insult to injury is the dialogue. Every character—regardless of age, gender, or background—has the exact same speech pattern. The writer never uses the dialogue as an opportunity to reveal these characters’ personalities, even though it’s the only way to distinguish them when they don’t do anything but talk. They all seem exactly the same: obsessively focused on their jobs and on how to wriggle out of the crisis at hand.
Peter and Sam are the only characters who come close to having any sort of ethical judgment. They are both aware that what needs to be done is wrong, and the writer seems to be trying to make a statement about the fact that they know it’s wrong but do it anyway. However, this muddles the attempts to portray the other characters—the ones who lack such ethical guidance—as sympathetic. If the audience is supposed to feel betrayed when Peter and Sam simply go to work and do what they’re told, how are they supposed to feel when Seth starts bawling uncontrollably and Sarah attempts to have an emotional breakdown but is too numb to cry? Maybe this is difficult to determine because of how poorly the characters are developed.
This is a hugely problematic script that has noble intentions but fails to achieve what it’s aiming for. Although it’s a relevant story, it fails to tell audiences anything they don’t already know. It’s hard to imagine any amount of slick filmmaking or great acting will make this script work.