There’s been a lot written about the decisions and policies that lead to the global economic meltdown that started in September 2008. We’ve seen implicating documentaries (Inside Job, Capitalism: A Love Story) and countless dramas about people coming to terms with the effects of recession (Up in the Air, The Company Men). However we’ve yet to see a story of the men and women who were on the front line as the shit hit the fan on Wall Street.
Margin Call sets to bridge that gap with the story of the Peter Sullivan (Zachary Quinto) a junior risk analyst with a major investment bank (loosely based on the failed Lehman Brothers apparently) who is given a memory stick from Stanley Tucci’s recently let-go manager, and told to “be careful”. Being a former rocket scientist – the money is better in finance – Sullivan digs in and tries to make sense of the numbers. With the help of a fancy algorithm a few worrying trends reveal an impending crash. He goes to his bosses who have to then decide what to do with assets that they know are toxic, while simultaneously hoping that the people they’re planning on selling them to haven’t got access to the same lines of information.
Corporate America is very often played as a soulless environment where the size of your next bonus is infinitely more important than the thousands of minimum wage workers whose livelihoods you can ruin with the click of a mouse and a few recalculations. Margin Call does nothing at all to change this perception, but it does afford us a look into what makes these people tick.
It reveals a human side in those at the bottom of the ladder who wonder what it must be like for “real people” to be out on the streets unaware that their whole world may be on the verge of collapse. But as you climb the corporate ladder you encounter an increasingly worrying level of psychosis and paranoia. To the senior executives and CEOs the survival of the company and the protection of their bonuses is of paramount importance, even realising the potential profit that can be made by predicting and playing with the impending crash.
The film is really about the supporting players with Kevin Spacey a stand-out while Jeremy Irons chews the scenery so much that he at one point practically coughs up a boardroom table. It’s also nice to see Demi Moore as a proper actor again and not just fodder for gossip magazine front-covers alongside her soon to be ex-husband @aplusk.
Margin Call is a triumph for Zachary Quinto’s production company Before The Door Pictures. You got the sense when he was doing the press for his part of Sylar in the TV series Heroes that there could be a lot more to him, and his performance as Spock in J.J. Abrams Star Trek reboot and his new-found role as a gay activist (co-star Kevin Spacey could learn a thing or two from him) has shown that he’s certain to evolve into one of Hollywood’s most interesting players in the coming years.
There’s not a whole lot wrong with Margin Call, save for a few slow points and a little bit of disconnect in the final act. The dialogue zips along but even with a great script it struggles to keep the tension levels high. The film obviously has to delve pretty deeply into things like “mortgage-backed securities”, and it’s this financial material that is most challenging to engage with. It’s at its best when dealing the men (and woman) who have to work out how to sink or swim when crisis looms.
USA / J. C. Chandor / J. C. Chandor / Starring: Kevin Spacey, Paul Bettany, Jeremy Irons, Zachary Quinto, Penn Badgley, Simon Baker, Demi Moore & Stanley Tucci / 107 min / Drama, Thriller / Release: 21 October 2011 (US), 11 November 2011 (Canada), 13 January 2012 (UK/Irl)