First-time features don’t get a whole lot more assured than Margin Call, an incisive, biting look at the Wall Street mindset and machinations that led to our current economic doldrums.
A bunch of suits standing around talking may not sound all that interesting, but J.C. Chandor’s writing/directing debut (after several years in advertising and music videos) succeeds both as a personal drama of individuals and as an allegory about what plagues American capitalism in this still-young century.
And he has an ensemble cast to kill for.
Unfolding over 24 hours in a major NewYork banking/investment firm, this boardroom thriller unfolds like a finely-tuned stage play, with sharp characterizations and killer dialogue. (You may be reminded of Mamet in his prime.)
But if it feels claustrophobic, it’s claustrophobic in just the right way, suggesting a much bigger world where the decisions made overnight in this tower of glass will have devastating repercussions.
It’s a bad morning at the unnamed firm, with pink slips going out to a big chunk of the work force. Among those getting their walking papers is a 20-year-veteran (Stanley Tucci) who, before clearing his desk and hitting the elevator, passes off to an underling a flash drive filled with data he’s been trying to decipher.
The recipient of this information is Peter Sullivan (Zachary Quinto, Spock in the last Star Trek film and a producer of this one), a young risk analyst who spends the better part of his work day trying to understand the drive’s contents. By 8 p.m. he has it figured out — and it’s not good.
The data reveals that nearly $8 trillion in negotiable securities owned by the bank — mostly bundled mortgages — are toxic. Which means that the company’s net worth is now in the negative numbers.
The formula that was supposed to protect the company from this sort of thing has failed. It’s crunch time.
Over a long caffiene-fueled night the firm’s heavy hitters are rousted from their beds and barrooms to confront the situation beneath flourescent lights.
Sullivan’s immediate boss is Will Emerson (Paul Bettany), a cocky king of securities salesmen. Above him is sales director Sam Rogers (Kevin Spacey), an old hand who retains a smattering of business ethics.
The same cannot be said of his superior, Jared Cohen (Simon Baker), a practitioner of cutthroat me-ism who immediately thinks of covering his own rear by finding a scapegoat — his obvious target is the firm’s risk management specialist (Demi Moore).
And then there’s the big cheese, John Tuld (Jeremy Irons), a suavely reptilian sort whose recipe for success in business is “Be first, be smarter...or cheat.”
Tuld lays out the game plan: Sell every worthless security at discounted rates before word of the fiasco goes public.
When it’s pointed out that this will destroy the trust of customers, devastate the company’s reputation and quite likely leave world markets in smoking ruins, Tuld replies that all that matters is the survival of the company.
Of course, it also helps to have a golden parachute.
Margin Call is a pressure cooker of a film that begins tense and only gets tenser as the enormity of what is happening sinks in.
The reactions of the characters to Tuld’s mandate ranges from moral indignation (Spacey), cynical acceptance (Bettany) to ambivalence (Quinto, who after setting this boulder rolling downhill watches the ensuing devastation with a sort of clinical fascination).
“Look at these people walking around with absolutely no idea what’s about to happen,” Sullivan marvels at the crowded city streets.
One of the remarkable things about Chandor’s direction is his low-keyed approach. Nothing is exaggerated here. Voices aren’t raised in either panic or indignation. Despite the looming chaos, these professionals remain outwardly calm and controlled. For the rest of the world it may be a question of life or death; for these guys it’s a business problem to be solved.
Chandor — whose father worked for more than 30 years for Merrill Lynch — emphasizes plotting, characterization, and establishing an atmosphere of moral ambiguity and growing tension. He doesn’t play with his camera or engage in tricky editing; this is pretty straightforward moviemaking.
But in its depiction of the Darwinian world of eat-or-be-eaten capitalism, it says more than a dozen classes in economics. Margin Call should be required viewing for the Occupy Wall Street crowd.
About the Author
Robert W. Butler is a lifelong Kansas City area resident, a graduate of Shawnee Mission East High School and the William Allen White School of Journalism at the University of Kansas. For several decades he was the movie editor of the Kansas City Star; he now writes a movie-themed blog at butlerscinemascene.com. He joined the Library's Public Affairs team in 2012.