Margin Call

Underrated Masterpieces: Margin Call (2011) – Play it Again, Dan

Of the Wall Street movies made in the wake of the financial crisis, Martin Scorsese’s The Wolf of Wall Street, drew the most attention, awards, and audience receipts. But I think The Magnificent Martin was outshone by a lower budget film of a first-time writer/director: Margin Call.

Made by J.C. Chandor in 2011, the film documents 24 insane hours at an unnamed Wall Street firm. The story opens with casual brutality: traders and managers being professionally and publicly fired and marched out of the building while their colleagues continue working around them. Revealingly, the only people who are perturbed by the inhumanity are the newer employees; everyone else learned the hard truth a long time ago. But it is a moment of humanity on which the story turns. As long-serving risk management expert Eric Dale (Stanley Tucci) is cruelly cut loose, a whiz kid analyst named Peter Sullivan (Zachary Quinto) thanks him warmly for his mentorship. Eric is touched, his armor drops for a moment, and he hands Peter a thumb drive and says: “Be careful”. The thumb drive contains a partially completed statistical model which Peter quickly perfects, revealing that the firm has enormous risk exposure that could bankrupt it at any moment. As panic sets in, higher and higher levels of management are brought in to save the firm by any means necessary. High-powered acting and drama ensue.

Margin Call - NYT Watching

The cast is star-studded, with Paul Bettany as a mid-level trading manager who wonders why he never breaks into the higher echelons of the firm, Kevin Spacey as a world-weary survivor of decades on The Street, and Simon Baker as an ice cold executive. The role of the CEO — one of those “let’s write a colorful small part for a prestige actor” roles — is played with just the right touch of theatricality by Jeremy Irons. Irons is particularly effective at conveying one of the script’s principal messages: The higher up you go, the more sociopathic and substantively ignorant people become.

Demi Moore also gives an excellent performance as the one woman in authority within the firm. She projects power laced with the underlying brittleness and fear of someone who is smashed flat against the glass ceiling. The script offers no sentimental dreck about corporate women being nicer the men: She after all is the one who cans the long serving Eric Dale after failing to listen to his warnings. Yet we also feel sorry for her because it’s obvious that when the boys’ club pins the blame on someone for the catastrophe, it will be a fall girl and not a fall guy.

Yet with all that star talent, the real star here is J.C. Chandor, in one of the most promising cinematic debuts in quite some time. His script and direction make for brisk pacing without sacrificing nuance. A story about the corrupting influence of money on both the best and the worst of us could easily have been preachy or heavy-handed, but here it’s artful and wise. Most notably, Chandor humanizes the characters while not forgiving them. A few more lines of quotable dialogue, including a moment or two with some comic relief, might have made it even better, but that’s a small complaint about a polished and multi-layered script. Hats off to Chandor as director as well, for clearly not being intimidated by his stellar cast, and for offering a compelling vision of the people, motives, and actions that wrecked the global economy.