Margin Call is a brilliantly written and acted ensemble drama that takes a sharp look at fiscal irresponsibility a day before the world was plunged into the black.
If Wall Street is the film that epitomised the “greed is good” financial culture of the 1980s, then Margin Call is its equivalent for our post Global Financial Crisis times. Intelligently written and brilliantly portrayed, Margin Call delves into the belly of the beast where consequence is given no conscious and the line between good vs evil is blurred amongst a sea of numbers.
The film begins with mass layoffs at a fictitious investment firm. While floor manager Sam Rogers (Kevin Spacey) rallies the remaining troops, his optimism is quickly diminished when bright senior trader Peter Sullivan (Zachary Quinto) comes bearing bad news that projected figures show the fiscal is about to hit the fan.
What follows is a night and morning of money men (and one woman played by Demi Moore) struggling with the decision either to sacrifice themselves at the altar of financial responsibility or sell off their useless assets to an unsuspecting market, saving themselves but crippling the financial sector. As they say, money talks.
Writer/director J.C. Chandor received a worthy Oscar nomination for his astutely written screenplay. The stakes are felt throughout thanks to Chandler simplifying the fiscal jargon into digestible portion that are easy to comprehend.
Also good is the dialogue, smart and snappy and delivered by a great cast, many of whom have not been this good in years. This is one of those films where joy is taken in watching great actors trade great lines with one another.
Kevin Spacey (he who has perfected playing boss roles) shines with an excellent turn as one of the good guys, his improvisational touches perfectly gelling with Chandlor’s dialogue. Jeremy Irons is at his slimy best as the big boss man who takes profit over responsibility. Then there is Paul Bettany, who reminds of what a great talent he is as the nicotine chewing, no BS dispensing trading desk head.
Chandler could have gone another direction with this material. Had he portrayed these investment bankers as evil, moustache twirling fat cats, it would not be as effective. Yet he has written wholly rounded characters who know full well of the consequences of their actions, with some reeling in guilt.
What Marin Call becomes is a sad lament of what capitalism has become. In one pivotal scene, a fired risk management banker portrayed by the always solid Stanley Tucci tells a story about how he once built a bridge. It was an achievement he could stand by, a tangible creation made by workers on an honest wage and who built reputations with brick and mortar rather than figures on a computer screen.
Margin Call shows that when those figures go belly-up not only does the market crash and regular people suffer, but men in suits are exposed as fraudsters swallowed whole by a system they have no control over. This is the monster of capitalism shaking free of its invisible leash.