Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Margin Call Movie Review

The financial crisis that started in 2008 is far too complicated to explain in one 2 hour dramatic film. The experts on the subject can hardly understand exactly what led to such a tremendous financial crash. Some films have tried to get into it, including documentaries, all of which are too all-encompassing to make much sense or to coalesce the details into something understandable to a layperson.

J.C. Chandor’s Margin Call, however, is a smart little financial drama that takes place basically in the 24 hours before the big crash really started. Chandor, the son of a Wall Street investment banker, and a man who clearly understands a lot more about financial institutions and brokerage deals than I ever will, has crafted a screenplay and a film unlike anything I’ve ever seen on similar topics. Your typical Wall Street drama is so often fast-paced high tension designed to make what is otherwise cinematically uninteresting material more visually arresting. Chandor eschews the bells and whistles for a story that is character based.


There are two great accomplishments of Chandor’s screenplay. First, he has built a story around something very complex, but written it in a way that is fairly easy to grasp without pandering or relying on dialogue that feels overtly expository. Second, he has succeeded where most movies have failed, or failed even to attempt, in crafting a story of terrible calamity without any obvious villains. There is no hand-wringing CEO pontificating about how he’s going to make millions while others lose and he doesn’t care. Every decision that is made by each character is what he thinks is best for the company. The problem is some people have different ideas of what that should be.

The film opens with a depressing scene of people getting fired in a big investment firm. The firm is never named and is ostensibly fictional so as to avoid any comparison with real-life events. One of those who is let go is a 19 year veteran of the firm’s Risk Management division named Eric Dale (Stanley Tucci). He tries a couple of times to tell his superiors that he’s been working on something important that should be looked at, but they blow him off: “This isn’t your problem anymore.” So on his way out the door he gives it to Peter Sullivan (Zachary Quinto), a young hungry analyst who is a genius at crunching numbers. What he discovers is big enough to call his ex-boss’s boss, Will Emerson (Paul Bettany) back to the office at 11pm. He in turn calls his boss, Sam Rogers (Kevin Spacey) and so on. Before we know it there is a late night/early morning board room meeting with the CEO John Tuld (Jeremy Irons).

What Peter discovers is what many of us now know: the firm had investment holdings that had projected losses worth more than the value of the company if those holdings lost just 25 percent of their value. There’s talk here and there throughout the night of, “I warned you about this a year ago,” but when business is booming and the bonuses are big, who wants to be the person to stop the gravy train?

The whole plot unravels slowly. It’s one of the most deliberately slow-burning thrillers I’ve ever seen. It’s interesting that it was released very close to Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, another thriller that is similarly paced. Apart from that there is so much I admired in it. For one thing there’s Kevin Spacey giving a signature Spacey performance that outshines most of what he’s one in the last ten years. His character is a survivor who prides himself on having made it 34 years with the same firm. I especially like how, after half of his department has been fired, his teary eyes are for his beloved dog that will have to be put to sleep. It’s not that he doesn’t care, but more about his refusal to accept reality. The speech he gives to the other ‘survivors’ could have gone down as one of the great pep talk speeches in a flashier movie.

Paul Bettany is always a fantastic actor and his character Will is more financially motivated than perhaps Sam is, but Chandor doesn’t use that against him. He’s more willing to fall into lockstep with what the firm wants even if it’s against his personal beliefs, but that doesn’t necessarily make him a bad guy. He’s just someone who wants to keep his job and move up at the end of the day. I think the character I liked best, though, was Sarah Robertson (Demi Moore). Sarah is the chief risk officer and has probably one of the most difficult character introductions imaginable as we first meet her through the eyes of Eric Dale as he’s just walked out the doors of the firm forever and discovered they’ve even disconnected his cell phone. He has nothing for her but a terse expletive. It turns out she’s not a villain either and I loved that she has no moment of female vulnerability on screen. There’s not speech about the difficulties of being a woman in a profession dominated by men. She has a tough and steely demeanor and that’s it. When she’s handed her fate at the end of the film she takes it in stride without breaking down. It’s one of Moore’s best performances.

Regardless of who may or may not be morally egregious based on the events in this film, by the time these actions play out the crisis could not have been averted. Everything was already in motion to head over the edge. What the characters at this fictional firm have to decide is what to do about their worthless investments: hold them and go bankrupt or sell everything off in a single day which will destroy the reputation of the firm.

This may be one of the best films about Wall Street ever made because it doesn’t sensationalize that whole thing. At the same time it doesn’t simplify anything. This financial crisis is the result of failings on a global scale at almost every human level from investment banking CEOs to individual homeowners. Margin Call doesn’t have any interest in throwing blame around and pointing fingers at this individual or that type of person. You may see Jeremy Irons’ Tuld as a snake. Certainly Irons brings with him a history of playing those kinds of characters, but I see him as a man who achieved his position by being shrewd and making tough decisions that look morally suspect from the outside.

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