The first movies to examine the 2008 economic collapse were documentaries, most prominently Andrew and Leslie Cockburn’s American Casino and Charles Ferguson’s Oscar-winning Inside Job. They combined an objective toughness with a righteous anger directed at the hubris, arrogance and predatory tactics of Wall Street culture the sparked the international meltdown.
I first caught J.C. Chandor’s debut feature, Margin Call, at Sundance. The movie opens now at the very existence on an emerging countermovement, the Occupy Wall Street and its corollary actions in London, San Francisco and Chicago, gives rise to a wholly different brand of anger and collective fury.
Chandor’s film is a brisk, 24-hour snapshot of the panic from inside the corridors of power and entitlement. Chandor has a background in the financial services private sector, and his familiarity has both advantages and an on occasional downside.
Chandor is not a stylist or visually sophisticated, certainly not in the expressive and fluent way of other first-time Sundance directors were, like Maryam Keshavarz (Circumstance) or Braden King (HERE). Margin Call is persuasive in the details and sharply played by a fine ensemble cast that makes up for some of the protean qualities of the overall conception. What it has to say is not terribly original or groundbreaking, but it is a compelling story briskly told.
Thankfully Chandor does not swamp the movie in the quotidian or arcane details off the derivative or complicated trading mechanisms of mortgage backed securities or credit default swaps at the heart of the crisis. The movie is set at the incipient stages of the financial collapse, and the early tone is one of fear and overwhelming anxiousness.
Set inside a fictional Wall Street financial investment firm clearly modeled on the Lehman Brothers, the movie opens with a ritualistic “massacre,” like something out of Up in the Air, with a team of snipers, the human resources division, swooping in on the trading floor to inform the unlucky they are about to be terminated.
Eric Dale (Stanley Tucci), the head of the firm’s risk management group, is the highest profile victim. As he is being escorted from the building, Dale hands over a flash drive containing highly sensitive company information and tells one of his lieutenants, Peter Sullivan (Zachary Quinto), to “be careful.”
Sullivan, somewhat naïve and dutiful, is an MIT scholar and rocket scientist who rejected academia and joined the financial services sector, he freely admits, because of the money. Curious and intrigued by Dale’s closing remarks, he applies his own mathematical computations and projections. What he discovers is not a pretty picture.
The trading component is a very lucrative though volatile aspect of the company’s revenues. As such it comes with a very high asterisk, and what Sullivan learns is that the company’s positions are not just questionable though downright “toxic.”
A contraction of the market could effectively render the company worthless. Sullivan immediately notifies his superior Will (Paul Bettany), that sets in motion a series of backdoor meetings, beginning with the managing director, Sam (Kevin Spacey) to the founder and CEO (Jeremy Irons). Chandor delineates the power players, from the law division (represented by Simon Baker and Demi Moore) to the major board signatories.
Margin Call turns on a series of maneuvers and counteractions, where fiduciary questions about their obligations to clients and bondholders and greater moral culpability is suddenly trumped by their own survivability. The movie’s strength is not necessarily how it all plays out, but rather the private dilemmas and personal demons enacted by the players.
The movie works best surveying that world and pointing out the social hierarchy, where the elite invariably find a way to survive and prosper and how those underneath are often sacrificed at the altar of the church of capitalism. Chandor is very good at elucidating the misogyny coursing through the Wall Street culture, from the cruel epithets and nasty invective betrayed by the higher ups.
If he cannot bring much visual excitement or inventiveness to the movie, he partially compensates with a sharply attuned feel for situations and performances, like a beautifully sustained monologue by Tucci about his character’s background as an engineer occasioned a resourceful solution to social progress and improved daily life.
By implication, Wall Street is the opposite; it sucks out resources and wealth for the purposes of self-dealing without fully considering the larger implications. At least, that appears the message of Margin Call. It gets a bit muddled at times. It does not always help that some of the other characters are less well defined than say, the analyst Peter Sullivan, and very few of them are very sympathetically drawn.
Spacey’s financier, a variation of his character from David Mamet’s Glengarry Glen Ross, appears more interested in the rapidly declining health of his dog than the people that have just been summarily fired at his firm. In Margin Call, character is elastic and more subtle than first appearances imply. Bettany is very effective as a big player suddenly brought down.
In the end, summarized by a speech Irons’s CEO gives to Spacey, the movie is about a certain kind of self-justification, that the recklessness of the firm is consistent with the operating culture and world they inhabit.
It is dangerous and I think, not terribly, accurate to yoke together this film with the enveloping movement actually unfolding. It seems fairly clear, whatever your position, the protesters have a collective willingness to unsettle people, to make them uncomfortable.
Unfortunately Margin Call never breaks the rules to truly become something vital and important. Quinto's Sullivan is a niche actor; Spacey's Sam Riley is the defeated, haunted man, resigned to the mortifying actions; Irons's CEO stands outside, leathery and impersonal, secure in his knowledge his money and power insulate from any kind of public or even private comeuppance.
Margin Call is full of observations, some very credible and sharp, but too often it has a restrained mood and tone that seems antithetical to the material. It sheds light on an elusive culture and with a documentary exactness suggests the source and origins of the profound troubles we now face.