By Bill Wine
KYW Newsradio 1060
To call this movie timely in the era of Occupy Wall Street is to understate the case. “Torn from today’s headlines,” indeed!
Margin Call — in a topical mode not far removed from that of Up in the Air, The Company Men, and Inside Job — is a vivid snapshot of an early stage of 2008’s financial crisis that exposes, provokes, disturbs, and even sickens.
Greed, which Michael Douglas’s Gordon Gecko told us was good through two Oliver Stone Wall Street flicks, goes unchecked and hovers over the proceedings like a villain from Central Casting once again.
Margin Call is an engrossing suspense drama revolving around the shocked, fearful, and desperate employees of a fictional Wall Street investment firm (not unlike Lehman Brothers) — in which it remains claustrophobically ensconced (making it seem even more like an adapted play, which it is not) during the course of a day and a half during the early stages of the financial crisis.
Stanley Tucci plays a mid-level risk management analyst who is abruptly let go by the firm who mentions to junior colleague Zachary Quinto (also one of the producers), literally on his way out the door, that he has proof that the way that the company operates doesn’t add up and is likely to come crashing down. Soon.
This is reported up the corporate ladder to executives played by trading-floor chief and sales manager Kevin Spacey; assistant sales manager Paul Bettany; risk management head Demi Moore; smug, bottom-line-oriented financial executive Simon Baker; and then to CEO Jeremy Irons.
Then the decision is made, with Wall Street on the verge of inevitable bankruptcy, to instruct the century-old firm’s brokers to sell their souls by selling off the firm’s assets and make a modest immediate killing by trading all the firm’s mortgage-based securities (“MBSs”), which they now know are worthless and will undoubtedly trigger a wide panic, in the name of short-term damage control but at the cost of long-term financial catastrophe.
And at least a few of them, especially Spacey’s character, struggle with this astonishing level of ethical and moral compromise.
This first feature from writer-director JC Chandor maintains a nose-bleed-high level of dramatic tension throughout, and Chandor’s uniformly fine cast does him and the material proud.
Chandor takes a gamble with a screenplay that some might see as repetitive, but works nicely to make dense material clear and understandable.
Given the subject matter, it’s actually remarkable that the amount of insider financial terminology that might be flying over the heads of casually interested viewers is minimal.
At one point, Irons’ honcho asks the young analysts to explain the intricate financial imbroglio “as you would to a small child.” But the screenplay succeeds by explaining what’s going on neither as you would to a small child nor the way you would to an economics expert, but the way you should to an attentive, intelligent audience.
So we’ll invest 3 stars out of 4 for the topical, sober, and quietly horrifying ensemble drama, Margin Call. The call here: nothing marginal about this one, which is well worth an investment of your time and money.