A drama about a bank during the financial crisis of 2007-2010. The story centers on a trading firm that recently went through a cycle of layoffs. One of the laid off staffers, Eric Dale, passes on a program that he was in the middle of working on to his protege, Peter Sullivan. Later that night, Peter examines the program and discovers a fatal problem in the firm's holdings and this discovery propels the movie.
Bottle Episode: Close. Most of the scenes occur in a single office building, partially to save money on filming.
And it didn't hurt that the space used for filming had very recently been the offices of a trading firm, saving some money on set decoration. They just simply repainted the bathroom stalls for the scenes that took place in there.
Chekhov's Gun: Sam's dog, who we learn is terminally ill very early in the film. After a brief scene where he holds her shortly thereafter, she reappears only in the final scene, where he buries her in the front yard of the house he lost to his ex-wife.
Corrupt Corporate Executive: Most of the firm's senior managers, with the exception of Sam Rogers, who warns his boss and colleagues that the mass selloff they have planned to save the firm will destroy any credibility of the firm and anyone acting on its behalf have accumulated in the market. After it succeeds, he asks the company's president if he can leave the firm.
Deal with the Devil: The firm can save itself only if it engages in deceptive business practices on a massive scale for one trading day, causing large ripple effects around the entire market and costing it its hard-earned credibility and the trust of its customers.
Driven to Suicide: Toyed with by Will just before Tuld arrives. Also a semi-serious concern with freshly-fired and unreachable Eric Dale. He's fine and implies that he's been missing because he knows what is about to happen despite his efforts.
Downer Ending: A Foregone Conclusion due to the actual 2008 economic crisis. The firm's plan works and the toxic assets are distributed throughout the economy, but they've ruined their own reputation for it. The film's most sympathetic characters are either unemployed, or unable to escape the corruption of the firm. To top it all off, the people most responsible neither suffer any real consequences nor learn anything. Near the end, Tuld comments "there's going to be a lot of money to be made coming out of all this."
At a Q&A, Word of God says that Seth was fired at the round of layoffs at the end and moved home to find work. Peter tried to quit like Sam, but was convinced to stay on anyway.
Will Emerson even goes on a rant about this and how the average American was just as much to blame as they were
Will Emerson: Jesus, Seth. Listen, if you really wanna do this with your life you have to believe you're necessary and you are. People wanna live like this in their cars and big fuckin' houses they can't even pay for, then you're necessary. The only reason that they all get to continue living like kings is cause we got our fingers on the scales in their favor. I take my hand off and then the whole world gets really fuckin' fair really fuckin' quickly and nobody actually wants that. They say they do but they don't. They want what we have to give them but they also wanna, you know, play innocent and pretend they have no idea where it came from. Well, thats more hypocrisy than I'm willing to swallow, so fuck em. Fuck normal people. You know, the funny thing is, tomorrow if all of this goes tits up they're gonna crucify us for being too reckless but if we're wrong, and everything gets back on track? Well then, the same people are gonna laugh till they piss their pants cause we're gonna all look like the biggest pussies God ever let through the door.
Intelligence Equals Isolation: Peter Sullivan, a Ph.D in (literally) rocket science, stays in all evening to look over the file his boss gave him just before being laid off while his coworkers go out to nightclubs.
Jerkass Has a Point: Cohen and Tuld's instinctive response to unload everything is fundamentally correct. Cohen might just be in over his head and scared but Tuld explains to Rogers in detail that he understands how damaging it will be for the firm - but that if the firm does nothing it will no longer exist, as he fully expects several others will not. In that case, reputation would not exactly be worth much.
Mood Lighting: Much of the film has a bluish tint to it to amplify the tension. This is justified due to the nighttime setting and the only available lighting being the fluorescent lights and the glow of the computer screens.
New York City: The film was shot on location at 1 Penn Plaza (above Penn Station) on a floor recently vacated by a trading firm.
No Celebrities Were Harmed: The name of John Tuld, the fictional bank's president, sounds a lot like Dick Fuld, the real-life president of Lehman Brothers, which went through an experience similar to the one depicted without the happy ending.
John Tuld may also be based on John Thain, CEO of Merrill Lynch. Like the company in this film, Merrill Lynch underwent a massive sell of mortgage-based CDOs prior to the collapse of Lehman Brothers in 2008, reducing its toxic assets and putting it in a position to be acquired by Bank of America.
Sarah Robertson may be based on Erin Callan, Lehman's CFO, who also passed on concerns about the firm's position from her subordinates but was forced to take the fall anyway.
Also has shades of No Communities Were Harmed. The firm remains unnamed, but is a sort of combination of Lehman Bros, Bear Sterns, and Goldman Sachs.
Pet the Dog: Sam's dog has cancer and his ex-wife allows him to bury it in their former yard.
After the sale Sam asks John if they're going to keep Peter, to which John replies that Peter is being promoted.
Punch Clock Villain: Everybody in the movie, although only Jared Cohen, Sarah Robertson, and John Tuld come close to any actual villainy.
Pyrrhic Victory: Even it the bank survives, they've ruined their relationships with their customer base and fellow traders, and screwed the market.
Reasonable Authority Figures: Peter's reception by the many different levels of bosses he meets is limited to well-justified concern of if he got an "eight trillion dollar equation" right. It goes remarkably smoothly considering he's telling said bosses the world is going to end, the firm may not survive, and everyone is going to lose millions (in Tuld's case, implied to be hundreds of millions) and/or their jobs.
Right Hand Versus Left Hand: When Eric Dale is laid off in the opening scene, he holds the key to what is about to happen. Though his associate is able to finish his work, throughout the movie the firm is now looking for him but can't find him because when he was laid off they turned off his cell phone.
Ripped from the Headlines: Although not based upon any specific bank, the situation was common. However, some reviewers thought the actions of the bank were a justifiable way of protecting their stockholders but most viewed the bank's actions as unethical and even criminal.
John Tuld: Explain it to me if I were a small child. Or a golden retriever.
Will Emerson: I don't even know what it is that you guys do.
Sam Rogers: I can't read that, explain it to me in English.
It should be noted that all of them realize it once it is explained in English, they simply didn't understand the intricacies of the model that was used. Though the first character listed, the CEO, is the slowest to realize it.
Villain Protagonist: All of the main characters qualify to some extent. While several characters question the morality of what they are doing, none of them actually do anything to stop it. This is exemplified by the two most sympathetic characters:
Peter Sullivan: Are you sure it's the only... er, the right thing to do?