It’s a Thursday afternoon in 2008. A nameless investment firm on Wall Street is going through what looks to be just the latest round of layoffs. But this round is particularly brutal and ends up ejecting a significant portion of their workforce. One of the people laid off, Eric Dale, played by Stanley Tucci, has been working on something fairly important in the company’s risk management department. On his way out the door he tosses a zip drive with his research on it to one of the young analysts who is staying with the company played by Zachary Quinto. He also gives the dire warning: “Be Careful.” This simple act sets off a long night of corporate trouble that ends up being the beginning of the collapse of the American economy.
Quinto’s character stays late after work examining the numbers he’s been given. Discovering a major discrepancy, he calls back into the office his manager (played by Paul Bettany) and others from his group to explain how their company is sitting on a time bomb with regards to their assets. The rest of the film takes place over the course of the rest of the evening all the way through to the morning, as 4:00am board meetings are held to discuss what they intend to do. This simple play-like premise makes for a well-acted and extremely compelling film.
The thrust of Margin Call is an attempt to explain how our economy fell into the toilet in which it currently resides. As explained here by the former rocket scientist turned analyst played by Quinto when addressing the chairman of the board (magnetically portrayed by Jeremy Irons), the company had bundled various financial products together and traded in them based on a set of risk criteria. But Tucci’s and Quinto’s characters had discovered that for more than half the recent business days the value of those products was nowhere near what they were being traded for. Simply no one on Wall Street had noticed yet. Iron’s response is “There are three ways to make a living in this business: be first, be smarter, or cheat. I don’t cheat and I’m not smart.” So their plan involves unloading all of their stocks on an unknowing trading environment all in one day before anyone discovers that these assets are essentially worthless. The implication is that billions of dollars will be lost by those who buy these stocks, just not by the company selling them. It will create untold bad will amongst their customers and pretty much end the company. But at least they will survive with their nest eggs in tact.
While this all may seem pretty dry as a plot for a fiction film, it is made riveting by a stellar cast of well-known actors. Zachary Quinto comports himself well as the young analyst who has to explain to everyone in the room why their company is screwed. Bettany as his boss is the most cynical of the bunch. In one speech, he dismisses the American people as getting what’s coming to them, since they’ve been living beyond their means for so long. What he’s saying is it serves us right for allowing the banks to get away with it. Kevin Spacey is his usual brilliant self as the leader of the stock traders, who on the one hand has to sell all of the charges under his rule that they are working in their own best interests and get them to drink the Kool-Aid, while on the other hand is the only voice of morality when the plan is hatched to unload their worthless stock. He is toeing the company line, but his internal conflict about it is compelling to watch. Demi Moore as the cold middle manager who was responsible for Tucci’s departure shows great restraint in her role. And Jeremy Irons as the charismatic CEO of the company ends up creating a fully realized character who is amoral, yet realistic all at the same time. There is also strong supporting work from Penn Badgley as another young analyst who wants to be more jaded than he is in reality.
First time writer/director J. C. Chandor has really attempted to dissect the motivations behind the American recession. While almost entirely shot within the confines of a towering New York office building, he is still able to make the impact of these machinations on the outside world known. Especially with the presence of Spacey, Margin Call begs some comparisons to Glenngary Glen Ross. Both concern a high-strung group of business people dealing with a major criminal issue and the potential loss of their jobs over one long night. But while the David Mamet script featured characters that were all angry bravado, the group in Margin Call has those days of being masters of their universe behind them. This story is the real fallout from capitalism run amok.
What’s most interesting here is that these characters feel real. They all realize what is happening and know that they are participants in ruining their company. And this terrific cast fills in the gaps that are not overly spelled out in some didactic way. This movie abounds with understated performances.
A great example is a scene late in the film between Demi Moore and Stanley Tucci. He has been called back into the office so they can make sure he doesn’t leak information while they are selling off their assets, and she is being positioned as one of the employees who will take a large portion of the blame. Moore begins an apology to Tucci for laying him off, but he stops her in a way that says he knows that they are both a part of this larger situation. The scene doesn’t turn into ridiculous histrionics with insults being thrown around. It’s just two people who know that they are taking their payoff and ending their careers. And both performers are marvelous at what they convey without words.
During this time of Occupy Wall Street protests and record unemployment, a story like this couldn’t be more timely. Margin Call boasts a dream cast and handles its subject with maturity and intelligence. It’s undergoing one of those increasingly more frequent distributions where it will be available both On-Demand and in the theaters. So it should be easy to seek out. Highly recommended.