Margin Call is the movie Oliver Stone tried to make with Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps, only a lot less flashy and melodramatic — and sharper, smarter and with a much stronger cast.
The feature-film debut of writer-director J.C. Chandor often imparts a whiff of David Mamet and could have easily been staged as a play. Margin Call is set over the course of a tense 24 hours at an investment firm (loosely based on Lehman Brothers) in 2008, just before the financial crisis exploded.
When the film opens, corporate hatchet men (and women) are patrolling the halls, downsizing staff. Among those laid off is a risk-management executive (Stanley Tucci) who claims to be working on something vitally important but is told to vacate the premises immediately. Before he leaves, he slips his research to one of his young analysts, Peter (Zachary Quinto), with an ominous warning: "Be careful."
Working late into the night, Peter finishes the work his former boss had begun and stares at his computer screen, stunned. He calls in his co-worker Seth (Penn Badgley) and their supervisor, Will (Paul Bettany), both of whom had been out on the town getting plastered. Soon, managers from the company's highest levels are in the office — including the big boss, John Tuld, played with theatrical relish by Jeremy Irons — scrambling to figure out how to keep the firm from imploding the moment the stock market opens in the morning.
The solution they come up with is one of pure survival — a scorched-earth, every-man-for-himself answer to an impossible situation. Margin Call doesn't talk down to the audience — the characters sling around the phrases "subprime mortgages" and "volatility models" at machine-gun speed — and one of the running gags in the movie is that the higher up the corporate ladder you go, the less managers understand the business they're in ("Speak as you would to a young child — or a golden retriever," Irons, the draconian CEO, tells Quinto, the genius analyst with a degree in rocket science.)
Margin Call benefits greatly from a fantastic ensemble cast. They bring human dimensions to characters that easily could have become Gordon Gekko caricatures. Kevin Spacey delivers his best performance in ages as the loyal mid-level manager wrestling with his conscience over what his beloved firm is about to do. Demi Moore conveys a brittle, silent panic as the risk expert whose investment formulas were the cause for the calamity her company faces.
And Bettany and Badgley are terrific as foot soldiers willing to do whatever is required of them. In one memorable scene, Badgley's Seth (constantly nosing around to find out how much his co-workers make) asks Will how he could spend his $2.5 million salary in one year. That's the sort of question many people in the audience would love to ask Wall Street hot shots, and Will's detailed answer is credible and eye-opening.
Margin Call neither demonizes its characters nor absolves them of their sins. The movie simply shows, without judgment or anger, how our economic crisis came to be — a tempest caused not just by imperious Masters of the Universe, but also by men and women much like the rest of us.