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Film / Margin Call

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There are three ways to make a living in this business; be first, be smarter, or cheat. Now, I don't cheat. And although I like to think we have some pretty smart people in this building, it sure is a hell of a lot easier to just be first.
John Tuld

A drama set in an investment bank during the financial crisis of 2007-2010 written and directed by J.C. Chandor with an All-Star Cast. The story centers on a New York trading floor that has just gone through a cycle of layoffs. One of the laid-off staffers, financial risk analyst Eric Dale, passes on a program that he was in the middle of working on to his protegé, 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.

Got a Spiritual Successor in the HBO movie Too Big to Fail which depicted the actual consequences of what Lehman Brothers did.



  • Affably Evil: John Tuld is ruthless as all hell, but good lord is he likable and it's genuine.
  • Amicable Exes: Played realistically. Sam and his ex-wife are civil to one another but, while she's sympathetic towards him, she pointedly leaves as soon as possible and makes clear that she wants him off her property as soon as he's done burying his dog. The property became hers because of a somewhat messy and one-sided divorce.
  • Armor-Piercing Response: Sam emphatically tells Tuld his plan to sell off the toxic assets will not only mean no-one will trust the firm again, but no-one will even trust the market. Tuld points out that if they don't sell the toxic assets there probably won't be a firm to save.
    Sam: You will never sell anything to those people ever again.
    Tuld: I understand.
    Sam: Do you?
    Tuld: Do you? This is IT! I'm telling you, this is it!
  • Artistic License – Economics: In-Universe. The top executives of the bank don't understand the products they sell. Which unfortunately is realistic.
    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.
    John Tuld: Maybe you could tell me what you think is going on here. And please, speak as you might to a young child. Or a golden retriever. It wasn't brains that got me here, I can assure you of that.
    • It should be noted that all of them realize the problem once it is explained in English, they simply didn't understand the intricacies of the model that was used. Though the last character listed, the CEO, is the slowest to realize it, although it is possible that he just thinks it is in his interest to play dumb at the moment.
  • Based on a True Story: The events are based on the real-life build up to the 2008 financial crisis and the collapse of Lehman Brothers. See also No Celebrities Were Harmed below.
  • Black and Grey Morality: Numerous people point out on several occasions that their actions are about to result in financial meltdown. Numerous other characters point out that if they don't act, someone else will do it first and ruin them.
  • Boisterous Weakling: Sarah tries to threaten her coworkers by telling them that if anyone tries to force her out, she'll take them with her. In the end, she's forced to be senior management's sacrificial lamb and has to impotently spend a day locked away with no idea if the company will screw her over her exit package.
  • 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.
  • Cluster F-Bomb: All over the place. Not surprising since much of the film revolves meetings discussing extremely high stakes under considerable time pressure.
  • 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.
    • Sam Rogers is the most morally conflicted of the firm's senior management because of the damage that initiating the recession will do to their reputation. Nevertheless, he's effectively bribed into going along with it by CEO John Tuld, then finds himself forced into staying on with the firm even after offering his resignation because he still really needs the money.
  • Driven to Suicide:
    • Toyed with by Will just before Tuld arrives, as he basically dangles over the railing at the top of the building for fun.
    • 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. Which in the cases of Peter Sullivan, Eric Dale and Sam Rogers means a great financial profit but at the cost of a very guilty conscience for being unable to stop it. 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.
  • Evil Brit: John Tuld. He's the most ruthless person in the film by a country mile.
  • Exact Words: Tuld claims "It wasn't brains that got me here, I can assure you of that." but that doesn't mean he isn't smart, it just means it wasn't the main reason he's in a charge.
  • Extremely Short Timespan: The movie starts Thursday afternoon and ends Friday at 5 (except for an epilogue which is probably Friday night).
    • The fire-sale itself which everything hinges on takes place inside a handful of minutes, is told only from Will's POV and is pretty much free of actual suspense.
  • Firing Day: Eric Dale is brutally dismissed: his company phone is turned off, his access to the office building is revoked. Then the firm realizes that he had crucial information and tries to contact him.
  • From Bad to Worse: What drives the initial disbelief and panic is the discovery of projected losses exceeding the market capitalization of the firm. When Tuld chairs the senior meeting he and Peter Sullivan, from different directions, arrive at that figure being a better-case scenario.
  • History Repeats: Tuld points out that financial crises have been around for as long as finance... and that there's always money to be made coming out of them in a speech that essentially puts a sugar-coating on Humans Are Bastards.
    Tuld: So you think we might have put a few people out of business today, that it's all for naught. You've been doing that every day for almost forty years, Sam. And if this is all for naught then so is everything out there. It's just money; it's made up. Pieces of paper with pictures on it so we don't have to kill each other just to get something to eat. It's not wrong. And it's certainly no different today than it's ever been. 1637, 1797, 1819, 37, 57, 84, 1901, 07, 29, 1937, 1974, 1987 — Jesus, didn't that fuck up me up good — 92, 97, 2000 and whatever we want to call this. It's all just the same thing over and over; we can't help ourselves. And you and I can't control it, or stop it, or even slow it. Or even ever-so-slightly alter it. We just react. And we make a lot money if we get it right. And we get left by the side of the side of the road if we get it wrong. And there have always been and there always will be the same percentage of winners and losers, happy foxes and sad sacks, fat cats and starving dogs in this world. Yeah, there may be more of us today than there's ever been... but the percentages... they stay exactly the same.
  • Honor Before Reason: This is the core of Tuld and Sam's confrontation. Sam, despite understanding the nature and scale of the threat, abhors the idea of selling assets the firm knows to be worth little if anything of face value to trusting buyers. Tuld's position is that what he wants Sam to do is his necessary job, Sam's job has always been to enter advantageous deals for the firm and that there is no honor among Wall Street. See also History Repeats above.
  • I Did What I Had to Do: A frequent justification invoked before and after the sell-off.
    • 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, that's 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 'til 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 instinct 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.
    • Tuld, as the firm's CEO, also has ultimate responsibility to the shareholders of his firm, not any of their competitors. See No Celebrities Were Harmed on him being more John Thain than Dick Fuld, and the Spiritual Successor Too Big to Failwhere John Thain defects from a US government/Wall Street huddle during "Lehman Weekend" to ensure the survival of his firm and shareholders via merger.
  • Layman's Terms: Almost all of the executives don't understand the nitty-gritty details of their own trade portfolio, nor of the risk models the valuations are based on, so Peter frequently provides simple explanations. Doubles as an Info Dump for the audience.
  • Misplaced-Names Poster: See above: pictures of eight actors, above their names (plus one). The only name in the right place is that of Simon Baker.
  • 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.
  • Naïve Newcomer: Peter Sullivan has worked in finance for a short time and he is amazed to hear how much the top management make.
  • 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 Stearns, and Goldman Sachs. Indeed, when the original script was still unproduced, the film's Blacklist logline was "the last 24 hours of Lehman Brothers."
  • No-Nonsense Nemesis: Tuld is this in spades especially to the more ethically upstanding Sam. He's relentlessly pragmatic in initiating a market crash.
  • Oh, Crap!: The second act of the film is essentially a long string of Oh Craps progressing higher up the pecking order until they reach the CEO.
  • Only in It for the Money: Pretty much everyone. Peter outright says that he gave up a career in the field he studied because they money's better in finance. By the end of the film, Sam is completely burned out and disgusted at what the firm has become but he's compelled to stay because he desperately needs the money.
  • Pet the Dog: Sam's dog has cancer and his ex-wife allows him to bury it in their former yard.
  • Poor Communication Kills: The firm can't reach Eric in part because his company phone was turned off. By the firm itself, no less.
  • Pragmatic Villainy:
    • After the sale Sam asks John if they're going to keep Peter, to which John replies that Peter is being promoted.
    • Eric is dragged into the office on the day of the fire sale and paid $176,471 an hour to do absolutely nothing.note 
  • Punch-Clock Villain: Everybody in the movie is proven to work for a firm with dirty practices, 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 vs. 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. And in a strange coincidence, the film was released right around the same time the Occupy Wall Street protests started.
  • Rule of Symbolism: The dog. The sound of Sam digging the grave plays over the credits.
  • Rule of Three: The page quote.
  • Running Gag: "How much did _____ make last year?"
  • Scenery Porn: Many views of the Midtown Manhattan skyline from office windows, building roofs and helicopters.
  • Speech-Centric Work: It's a rare moment in the film where someone isn't talking.
  • A Storm Is Coming: Emerson, explaining that he saves a bit of his money for a rainy day, uses the metaphor to describe the crisis that is about to go down.
  • Take a Third Option: Defied by Tuld; see the page quote. The magnitude of the disaster proves to be so great that, coupled with the risks of one of their competitors figuring it out before they do, there's only one option open and it must be executed instantly.
  • Uncomfortable Elevator Moment: Jared Cohen and Sarah Robertson have a tense discussion in the elevator about the coming mass sell-off of the bank's toxic assets with a dispassionate cleaning lady standing in between them.
  • Villain Protagonist: Most of the main characters qualify to some extent apart from Eric Dale, Peter Sullivan, Seth Bregman and Sam Rogers who along with several other characters question the morality of what they are doing, and yet do not actually do anything to stop it and end up mostly eye-witnesses rather than active participants to the firm's politics. This is exemplified by a discussion between two of the most sympathetic characters:
    Peter Sullivan: Are you sure it's the only... er, the right thing to do?
    Sam Rogers: For who?
    Peter Sullivan: I'm not sure.
    Sam Rogers: Neither am I.


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