Music Feature

Film Review: Margin Call

by Piers Marchant
The collapse of Wall Street left everybody confused.

Dir. J.C. Chandor
Score: 6.4

Kevin Spacey fits neatly into Wall Street movies much the way De Niro does in mob pictures. There's something about his forcefully clipped delivery and smug superiority, that lends itself perfectly to the life of a fast-talking financial bigwig. Which is why it's so striking that here in writer/director J.C. Chandor's drama -- which concerns a single 24-hour period at a massive brokerage at the very beginning of the 2008 mortgage meltdown -- we see him so vulnerable and human. When we first see Sam Rogers (Spacey), he's staring out the windows of his tidy corner office, his eyes welling with tears. But it's not the market's downswing that has him so miserable: His aged Labrador has a tumor and will have to be put down. For a film that has a tendency to put perhaps too fine a point on things, it's a moment that strikes you less for its metaphoric resonance and more for what it reveals about these reviled traders and high-finance types whose greed and recklessness helped propel this desolate economic downturn that has engulfed much of the country.

It's not enough to put a human face on this catastrophe, of course, the film also has to explain, at least in basic terms, what, exactly, got us in this mess. To that end, it helps tremendously that the higher up we go in the corporate pecking order, the less anyone seems to really understand anything ("Explain it to me as if I were a six-year-old child or a golden retriever" one all-powerful executive says to an low-level analyst). We begin in the morning of this unnamed company, on a day that several people are being sacked for no other reason than to bump the profit margin up another minor uptick. One of those being let go, Eric Dale (Stanley Tucci), is the head of the company's small risk management team, working on a new and very alarming model.

Rather than let his work go completely to waste, he gives this partially finished package to one of his subordinates, Peter Sullivan (Zachary Quinto), who promptly fills in the missing elements and arrives at a very sobering revelation: The company, so reliant on selling these bum mortgage packages for their high profit margins, has finally risked itself beyond the company's entire potential value. In other words, as their CEO puts it, the music is about to stop. Panicked, Peter brings this information to his boss, Will Emerson (Paul Bettany), and the resulting chain reaction finds the entire executive board, including their reclusive CEO, John Tuld (Jeremy Irons), convening in the middle of the night to try and formulate a way out of the mess they've gotten themselves into.

The film is nimble and unnerving, placing a high level of reliance on its strong cast, a risk for which it is well rewarded. It also doesn't stoop to satisfy our anger with criminal litigation and profuse bloodletting, which is absolutely beside the point by now in any event. Instead, for the rightfully infuriated laypeople whom saw only the unchecked greed and profit compulsion before, the film should do much to reveal more of how this all actually came to pass. It turns out it wasn’t the work of inhuman capitalist automations, it was an elite group of people who weren't nearly as smart as they had assumed they were.

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