Director : J.C. Chandor
Screenplay : J.C. Chandor
MPAA Rating : R
Year of Release : 2011
Stars : Kevin Spacey (Sam Rogers), Paul Bettany (Will Emerson), Jeremy Irons (John Tuld), Zachary Quinto (Peter Sullivan), Penn Badgley (Seth Bregman), Simon Baker (Jared Cohen), Mary McDonnell (Mary Rogers), Demi Moore (Sarah Robertson), Stanley Tucci (Eric Dale), Aasif Mandvi (Ramesh Shah), Ashley Williams (Heather Burke), Susan Blackwell (Lauren Bratberg)
An intense, focused dramatization of one moment at the beginning of the 2008 global financial meltdown, J.C. Chandor’s Margin Call arrives on the heels of numerous documentaries that have attempted to show in grand fashion how toxic assets, bad mortgages, and shady dealings brought the market to the brink and in the midst of the Occupy Wall Street movement, which will find in the film plenty of fuel for the fire. Taking place over a 24-hour period in the boardrooms and hallways of a fictional investment bank, it depicts with a mixture of both startling clarity and necessary ambiguity how the decision-making process at a such an institution might work in an emergency situation, with the institution’s survival coming at the expense of anything and everything. The fact that the film begins, not ends, with a major purging of executives suggests with no uncertainty that the white collars of the world are often stained with blood.
One of those being fired is Eric Dale (Stanley Tucci), a risk analyst with a permanently clenched jaw who is the midst of working on something big when he is unceremoniously handed his walking paper (the cool, clinical manner in which he is let go plays like a particularly unsettling distillation of Up in the Air). On his way out the door (humiliatingly escorted by a security guard, of course), he hands off a flash drive of his work to Peter Sullivan (Zachary Quinto), a lower level analyst, with the admonition to “be careful.”
While those who survived the purge head out to celebrate their continued employment at a nearby bar, Peter takes a look at his boss’s work and comes to the startling conclusion that the formula the bank has been using to invest in MBS’s (mortgage backed securities) is fundamentally flawed and has resulted in the bank holding toxic assets the negative value of which is more than the bank’s net worth. Peter brings his new boss Will Emerson (Paul Bettany) and his co-analyst Seth Bregman (Penn Badgley) back to the office, which spurs a furious series of calls up the chain of command that leads to a middle-of-the-night meeting with the CEO (Jeremy Irons) in which the executives must decide how to dig themselves out of a seemingly bottomless pit.
Although it could easily be presented as a stageplay, first-time feature writer/director J.C. Chandor keeps Margin Call visually and emotionally fluid, staging the entire ordeal like an escalating disaster in which fiscal, rather than physical, violence is the looming threat. Recognizing that most viewers in the audience won’t know the difference between an RMBS and a CMBS, Chandor’s script manages a tight-rope balance between making the crisis generally understandable while also emphasizing the ridiculous levels of computational complexity involved in large-scale financial dealings (I was reminded of the scene in Michael Moore’s Capitalism: A Love Story in which he goes around Wall Street asking people to explain what a derivative is and no one can successfully do it). It is not without some irony that Peter began his career in astrophysics and engineering (“You’re literally a rocket scientist,” one person says), which is why he is the only person in the film who can readily explain what is happening.
Although Margin Call is clearly designed to tap into the outrage people feel about Wall Street and its financial dealings, Chandor is not a one-note muckraker, and he takes pains to ensure that a broad spectrum of humanity is presented, or at least sketched. If anything, Margin Call is an ensemble showcase, with a vast array of characters reflecting different levels of the moral spectrum, the most interesting of whom are torn between their knowledge of how the system works to continually empower the powerful and their own contentious place in it.
There are certainly heartless villains, particularly Irons’s CEO, whose only goal is to ensure the survival of the bank over which he presides, the rest of the market be damned. Similarly, Simon Baker does a memorably smarmy turn as a high-ranking executive whose Master of the Universe narcissism constantly threatens to leave a smear on the screen. In-between are the emotionally conflicted characters, including Demi Moore as Sarah Robertson, the lone female executive who is given the unenviable task at the beginning of the film of leading the mass firings while also being the first to take the fall for the bank’s mistakes; the scene in which Irons informs her of her necessary demise and the cool manner in which she takes it speaks volumes about how much humanity must be repressed at the highest echelons of capitalism.
In a bit of atypical casting, Kevin Spacey is a given a notably conflicted role as Sam Rogers, a mid-level executive who is at first presented as part of the problem before being eventually revealed as one of the few characters who is willing to take a genuine moral stand; there are some lines that he simply will not cross. As Will, Paul Bettany is cagey and avoidant, his constant chewing of nicotine gum an amusing outward indicator of his constant anxiety and desire to fly just far enough under the radar to avoid the hatcheting of everyone around him. It reminds us of the old axiom that all it takes for evil to flourish is for good people to do nothing, and then compounds it with the suggestion that there aren’t enough good people to make a difference.
Copyright ©2011 James Kendrick
Thoughts? E-mail James Kendrick
All images copyright © Lionsgate