J.C. Chandor’s directorial debut Margin Call recounts, from the point of view of a fictitious investment bank, the events that led to the global financial crisis in 2008. Although the mathematical specifics are addressed in a frank manner – and eventually illuminated for those of us in the audience who were never good with such figures, and thus turned to a career in writing instead – Chandor’s film is more concerned with the men and women who unwittingly orchestrated the catastrophic collapse.
In our minds (we, the 99%), the high-flying Wall Streeters are fast-talking, whoring, coke-snorters with no real sympathy for anyone unable to keep up with their hard-living ways. Think Charlie Sheen in Wall Street, or, Charlie Sheen in real life. We get those types in Margin Call. But we also get the executives who are all bluster and no substance; we get the high-salary kids right out of university who chase a pay check and ignore the consequences; we get the self-loathing industry lifers with a conscience who nonetheless turn a blind eye to yet another immoral decision made by their company, sated by the fact they’re getting closer to that long-service bonus. And then there are the sensible people whose cries that the party might indeed be over are ignored by the higher-ups. Fittingly, Margin Call opens with the firing of one of these people.
Risk Assessment manager Eric Dale (Stanley Tucci) is unceremoniously let-go in the picture’s opening moments; just one of many, many employees told to take a hike by the unnamed firm at the picture’s core. He leaves his work in the hands of his whip-smart assistant Peter (Zachary Quinto), and junior Seth (Penn Badgley). While Seth is more concerned about asking colleagues how much they make, Peter is enticed by Eric’s warning to ‘be careful’ while carrying on his investigation. The curiosity becomes so great, he pulls an all nighter and discovers that they, and indeed the entire American banking infrastructure, is on the brink of collapse. He tells his boss (Paul Bettany), who tells his bosses (Kevin Spacey, Demi Moore), who tell their boss (Simon Baker), who tells the man that stands to lose half a trillion dollars, the company president (Jeremy Irons). Needless to say, by the time it gets to the top, the employees are no longer scrambling about trying to stop the inevitable, but rather finding someone to pin the blame.
Chandor’s deservingly Oscar-nominated script, like fellow nominee Moneyball, does not dumb down the intricacies of the (investment) game, but smartly explains it over the course of the picture. He also throws in plenty of metaphors so that even the layperson might at least get the gist of what is going on (for instance, Spacey’s dog is dying, and the vet is charging him $1000 a day to keep it alive). Those brief asides may be on the nose, but the characterisations and the verbal jousting conducted between characters are rich and entertaining. Glengarry Glen Ross, the David Mamet play and screenplay that also dealt with desperate men in a dying industry, is a fitting comparison. Chandor has also chanced upon a superb cast, with Spacey (giving his best performance in years) and Tucci standing out.
The Company Men beat Margin Call to the punch in terms of bringing the plight of the ‘haves’ during the financial crisis to the screen. But that picture was too forgiving of the criminals responsible, and too simplistic in encouraging white-collar workers to return to real American work like building houses and being Kevin Costner. Margin Call gives us villains that, rather than being sympathetic, are well-argued and reasonable. It gives us heroes that, whilst idealistic, make immoral choices for their own betterment. Margin Call is complex, fury-inspiring, and thoughtful.
Margin Call arrives in Australian cinemas March 15, 2012.