Margin Call

3 Dec

Title: Margin Call
Year: 2011
Director: J.C. Chandor
Writers: J.C. Chandor
Starring: Kevin Spacey, Paul Bettany, Jeremy Irons, Zachary Quinto, Penn Badgley, Simon Baker, Mary McDonnell, Demi Moore, Stanley Tucci
MPAA Rating: R, language
Runtime: 107 min
Major Awards: –
IMDb Rating: 7.2
Rotten Tomatoes: 86%

The 2008 financial crisis hasn’t been given a really amazing movie treatment until just now. I mean HBO came out with Too Big to Fail (which received eleven Emmy nominations, though won none) but that was a TV movie, and then there was last year’s Inside Job (which I ranked as the 49th best film of 2010) which won the Oscar for Best Documentary but, again, that was a documentary. And now we get Margin Call, an absolutely amazing film I wasn’t expecting to be this great, and the definitive film portrayal about that crucial moment in recent American history. It’s really a brilliant film, seriously smart, with a really tight script and an ensemble full of great actors at their finest delivering a really outstanding and timely film. All the buzz you’ve been hearing surrounding this film lately is the real deal.

The fact that this is writer-director J.C. Chandor’s debut film is also quite remarkable, not only did he manage to really work extremely well with a really big cast full of great actors and get really smart performances from every single one of them, but the script he crafted is just so incredibly well done, taking heaps of characters and thematic elements and combining them together into a really compelling film that takes place over a single night, and using the financial crisis not just as a backdrop but as the integral part of the conflict. The scenes we get of Manhattan at night, the big lights shining over the streets, of the people walking through very famous avenues not knowing what’s about to hit them and the entire nation, it’s hard not to sucked into this film.

One could surely make the point that this little span of twenty-four hours isn’t enough to really illustrate what went down in 2008, and one would be right. To really shine a light on that you would probably need a six-part miniseries with an even bigger cast and a story that spans a couple generations at least. But Margin Call really isn’t interested in telling that story, it instead offers a really sharp and incisive look at a very precise moment in time, and shows us just how ruthless the people were and the behavior of the people who were right there in the eye of the hurricane when it all went down. And I think that’s amazing, films have been making “statements” against banks and corporations for a while now, and Margin Call doesn’t do that, it’s not making any grand calls to arms, I mean it’s certainly timely as hell and astonishing to watch tell its story, but it’s doing just that, telling a story, dramatizing an event that still hits close to home to develop a damn fine plot full of terrific characters.

That’s probably my favorite thing about Margin Call, that it’s not denouncing any big corporation of anything, but instead focuses on showing us the behavior of people in the lion’s den, and how it’s the accumulation of those many individual acts, whether they stem from greed, self-defense or sheer ignorance, that result in the horrible consequences we’re usually so quick to pinpoint on just one entity. That’s what I loved so much about this film, that’s it’s not just saying stuff but it’s also showing stuff, showing us how the powerplay of Wall Street works, how much lying and cheating and speculating has to go down before that final cathartic moment.

That this is such an amazing film starts with the fantastic screenplay by Mr. Chandor, which is surely what attracted such an amazing amount of talent to his debut film. The story he tells and the language he uses feel just right, they suck you into a world that you may know nothing about and make you feel like you’re right there in the huddle with these guys. When the film starts we’re told that the economy is suffering, though not yet in the crapper like it would be shortly thereafter, and layoffs are made at a financial services firm in the Big Apple that make Eric Dale, a senior analyst played as well as always by Stanley Tucci, lose his job. Eric however had been working on a model that indicated that if the current market trends kept going the company would go down in a matter of days. As he’s getting in the elevator with nearly two decades of his life in cardboard boxes he hands Peter Sullivan, a young analyst played incredibly well by Zachary Quinto, a USB drive with his work-in-progress, asking him to continue it and to be careful.

So Peter does as he’s told, and stays late to work on the model, and as he starts figuring things out he realizes the severity of the figures he’s coming up with. And as those findings start finding their way up the ladder we get to flesh out the cast with some great characters played by even better actors, first we get Peter’s immediate superior, a cocky guy named Will played by Paul Bettany; then the night starts becoming morning and the head of trading, Sam, gets a gist of what’s going down, he’s a lonely man, a guy who’s dedicated three decades of his life to a company he actually believes does some good in the world and who has a dying dog as his sole companion, and he’s also played by Kevin Spacey, who for my money is one our finest actors living today, but who hasn’t given a performance as rich as this one in years, it was amazing to have him back.

From Sam it goes even higher up the ladder, with Demi Moore playing Sarah, the head of the risk department who actually warned of harsh times that may lie ahead but who’ll still have to take the blame; we then get Simon Baker as Jared, who’s their corporate devilish boss; and finally we have John Tuld, the C.E.O. that’s played so damn well by Jeremy Irons, another actor who hasn’t been this good for quite some time. What John decides is to come in via helicopter, get everyone together before dawn breaks and decide on a strategy for what to do before the market opens. That strategy, the group decides, is to start selling, to give away all of their bad assets to buyers who don’t know better, showing us just how unethical capitalism can be when it just needs to save itself.

Margin Call is an amazing film, Mr. Chandor keeps the film moving at a stellar pace, establishing solid characters and the opinions of these characters about the other characters without once losing grip on its finely crafted story. And what I thought set it apart was that in no point did Mr. Chandor set up one of his many characters as the story’s hero, no one ever tries to step up to the plate to do the right thing, it shows us just how bleak that world is, how everyone involved in it has somehow compromised at least a bit of themselves. Kevin Spacey in a really gentle performance and Jeremy Irons in a really overpowering one will both no doubt have a shot at a Supporting Actor Oscar nomination, and they would deserve it, the cast makes this story come to live, and once you watch this film you’ll maybe have a better understanding about why so many people are occupying Wall Street right now.

Grade: A-

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