REVIEW: 'Margin Call'


For me, the 2008 financial crisis was something that happened to other people. I was safely sheltered away in a country with a different banking system, happily working on my undergrad, with a proper career years away. Because of my relative ignorance, I was eager to see Margin Call, a drama that charts 24 hours in the life of a group of Wall Street bankers who suddenly see the crisis coming, and must decide what to do with the information.

The film largely relies on its stellar cast to present a tense, but not perfect, glimpse into the types of people we might expect to find stewing in their offices the night before the markets fell apart.

Margin Call opens with a scene that strongly reminded me of Jason Reitman’s lovely film Up In The Air. Professional terminators (not the robots!) arrive to cut a huge portion of the staff on the risk-management floor of a banking firm. Analyst Peter Sullivan (Zachary Quinto) and his friend Seth Bregman (Penn Badgley) survive the cuts, but their boss Eric Dale (Stanley Tucci) doesn’t. Before leaving, Dale passes a jump drive to Sullivan with the words, “Be careful”.

Sullivan opens the drive and finds that the company will soon start losing massive amounts of revenue on the risky mortgages it’s been bartering with other firms. Sullivan brings in his superiors, and as the night wears on, they must weigh whether to let their firm’s foolish decisions bring them down, or whether to poison the market to stay alive.

As I mentioned, the key virtue of Margin Call is its cast, which along with Quinto and Tucci includes Kevin Spacey, Jeremy Irons and Paul Bettany. We also see Simon Baker (of CBS’ The Mentalist) and Demi Moore, both of whom I felt were underused. Still, the film unravels like a concise stage play, with characters walking in and out of the film trying to fashion some sort of safety net for themselves out of what will remain of the company the next day.

In an interesting bit of scripting, the scenes outside the boardroom turn out to be the most compelling material. The boardroom becomes more of a ceremonial function for the characters, who all know that the real battleground will be on the trading floor. In the midst of it all is Sullivan, whose brilliant mind allowed him to warn the firm of its doom, but who remains on the company's outer edges observing their frantic attempts to absolve themselves.

I liked how Irons’ character John Tuld (an obvious reference to Richard Fuld, the former CEO of Lehman Brothers) is brought into the film but kept hidden from the audience for as long as possible. It paints him as the villain even more effectively than Irons’ performance. His subordinates are guilty of varying degrees of villainy themselves, though it’s Tuld’s utter disregard for the welfare of others, rich and poor alike, that makes him the top bad guy, and I was glad he didn’t become cartoonish.

Margin Call is the feature-film debut of writer-director J.C. Chandor. IMDb tells me that he previously helmed a single short film, so for Margin Call to be his second effort suggests that he’s going places in the industry. He evidently knows how to work with actors, even veteran performers like Spacey and Irons.

There were a few instances where I would have used different line deliveries, for example Sullivan’s oddly clairvoyant line, “Look at these people wandering around with no idea what’s about to happen.” Even so, the camera work with cinematographer Frank DeMarco is solid; it makes use of some hand-held shots that work well, though occasionally distract the eye. From a construction standpoint, the film is competent and effective.

I found myself wishing certain characters were more fleshed-out, specifically Baker’s character Jared Cohen and Penn Badgley’s low-level analyst Seth Bregman. Bregman provides a “comic relief” of sorts by always asking how much money people in the firm make, but there’s a scene between Bregman and Cohen that would have benefited from more development of the two characters. It doesn’t have the punch of other one-on-one exchanges in the film.

For those wondering if you need a lesson in the stock market to enjoy this film, Margin Call strikes a good balance between technobabble and straightforward language. Some may feel that the concepts of high-level trading are rendered too simplistically, but I think it helps the average viewer that the script isn’t too bogged down in terminology. The film might tell a story exclusively about the wealthy, but it’s the general public who will watch the movie.

It’s interesting that this film would open in wider release as Occupy protests are being dismantled across the continent. Perhaps the evicted protesters can come see this film and feel a little better knowing that J.C. Chandor sympathizes with them. It’s important, though, that Margin Call preserves the humanity of most of its players – I was happy to see Spacey in a non-snarky role, a man who wants to do good but is forced by years of financial tradition to continue stealing from the 99%.

For its standout cast, even tone and clever script, Margin Call gets three stars out of four.

What did you think of Margin Call? Were you drawn in by the taught pacing and strong performances? Or did it ignore important details of the financial crisis? Sound off in the comments section below! If you liked this review, you can also follow me on Twitter or check out my other recent reviews:

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