Spoiler alert: The commentary below — by Wharton new media director Kendall Whitehouse — on the film Margin Call contains significant details about its plot. You may want to see the film before reading on. For additional commentary, visit Whitehouse’s blog, On Technology and Media.  

Economic thriller Margin Call is in many ways a difficult film to like — and that’s what makes it worth seeing. The movie’s uncompromising look at desperate men (and one woman) in the throes of a moral crisis finds no happy ending. And that can be both grueling and fascinating to watch.

Written and directed by first-time feature filmmaker J.C. Chandor, Margin Call takes place in a large investment firm over the course of two days and one very long night during the economic meltdown of 2008. In the middle of that night, the company realizes its highly leveraged mortgage-backed securities are more sensitive to volatile market conditions than was previously thought, and recent market movements have already passed the threshold that their models predicted. The investment scheme and the financial products on which the scheme is based are unraveling. When it’s determined that the company’s financial exposure exceeds its market capitalization, the corporate officers are faced with a fateful decision: Sell the soon-to-be worthless assets — and, in the process, harm not only their customers, but also their own reputations (both as individuals and as a firm) — or let the company go under. The movie follows several employees as they come to grips with the ramifications of this dilemma.

The strength of the film — which is also what makes it difficult to like — is that all of the characters’ actions are unpalatable. This is not a story of good guys versus bad guys; it’s a story of people making seemingly rational, if terrible, choices.

There is a clever moment of misdirection in the film’s trailer which shows the head of the firm, John Tuld (Jeremy Irons), saying, “There are three ways to make a living in this business: Be first,be smarter or cheat.” The surprising next line in the film — which is not included in the trailer – is: “And I don’t cheat.” His dictum to his staff isn’t to cheat but, rather, to be quicker than their competitors — and sell the toxic assets before others realize their declining value. He’s not breaking the rules — he’s merely using them to his advantage.

Well acted and well directed, the film moves at a crisp pace as the crisis mounts and pulls more people into its orbit, yet the movie isn’t afraid to pause for a momentous silence at several points. There is a harrowing power in the lack of histrionics in the characters’ actions. The soft tones of everyone’s oh-so-professional demeanor make several scenes particularly chilling. The personnel officer utters well-rehearsed answers to any possible question as Eric Dale (Stanley Tucci) is being let go from the firm. When Sarah Robertson (Demi Moore) tells Jared Cohen (Simon Baker) that if they are going down, he knows that they will both go down together, he icily responds, “I’m not sure that I do know that.”

Despite our desire for someone to make a noble gesture of defiant righteousness, Margin Call doesn’t give us that cathartic satisfaction. There is no Jack Godell (Jack Lemmon) in the China Syndrome shutting himself inside the nuclear power control room to prevent the reactor from being restarted, no Bud Fox (Charlie Sheen) working with the Feds to snare Gordon Gekko (Michael Douglas) in Wall Street. There are just people making desperate choices.

While some characters — such as Kevin Spacey’s morally conflicted Sam Rogers — are more sympathetic than others, when faced with the film’s crisis, each makes essentially the same loathsome choice. Their reasons differ: It’s the only choice they believe they have; they are serving a greater good; or they simply need the money. Some are motivated by political machinations, some by weakness and some by fear, but in the end, they all feel they have no option other than the choice each eventually makes.

Margin Call is a closely-observed study of motivations — all of which differ, but all of which ultimately lead to essentially the same devastating outcome. One could leave the film with the view that everyone is corruptible, that we all yield to our weaknesses once the incentives are sufficiently great. While that may be true, the film’s underlying thrust may be more complex — and more harrowing. The problem isn’t simply human nature; it’s the system we have created that has such incentives, where the only choice is the deplorable one. While we may not be able to change human nature, we may, one hopes, be able to fix the system of incentives that leads to such lamentable outcomes.