'Margin Call': A Financial-Crisis Film That's on the Money

The sharp, star-studded chronicle of the crash is among the best movies of the year

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Before the Door Pictures

"There's a difference between an old-fashioned financial panic and what happened on Wall Street in 2008," wrote Michael Lewis in his excellent chronicle of the crash, The Big Short. "In an old-fashioned panic, perception creates its own reality: Someone shouts 'Fire!' in a crowded theater and the audience crushes each other to death in its race for the exits. On Wall Street in 2008 the reality finally overwhelmed perceptions: A crowded theater burned down with a lot of people still in their seats…. The problem wasn't that Lehman Brothers had been allowed to fail. The problem was that Lehman Brothers had been allowed to succeed."

The cast is uniformly and uncommonly good, even by their generally lofty standards

Though the 2008 financial crisis engendered quite a few good books and documentaries, it hasn't inspired much in the way of narrative film. This is no great surprise: The cinematic opportunities inherent in credit default swaps rather pale in comparison to those of predator drones, let alone extraterrestrial cops or robots. With his Wall Street sequel last year, Oliver Stone tried to again seize the economic zeitgeist, but it eluded his grasp. The film was at once hoary and contrived, an inflated melodrama of schemes and betrayals and motorcycle races that never conveyed the impersonal urgency of its subtitle: Money Never Sleeps.

Among the many virtues of Margin Call, the engrossing debut feature by writer-director J.C. Chandor, is its appreciation of this economic implacability. Unlike the second Wall Street (or, for that matter, the first), the movie understands that financial markets aren't merely tools to be wielded for purposes nefarious or benign, but vast and evolving entities in their own right, often inscrutable even to their purported custodians. Chandor's film is not a tale of the plots and counterplots of conniving bankers. It is a disaster movie, in which even the Masters of the Universe are running for their lives.

The movie depicts two days—and the long, intervening night—at a large investment firm loosely based on Lehman Brothers. The financial bubble is already popping, but no one has yet heard the sound it makes, with the exception of veteran risk analyst Eric Dale (Stanley Tucci). Before he can warn his colleagues, however, Dale is offhandedly cashiered, in what is clearly not the firm's first round of layoffs. (As he tells the duo of Ryan-Bingham-like downsizers assigned to "ease his transition": "Look, I run risk management. I don't see how that's a natural place to start cutting jobs.") On his way out of the building, Dale tosses a USB drive containing his unfinished research to a young protégé, Peter Sullivan (Zachary Quinto), who has escaped the corporate axe.

That night, as his fellow survivors head out to toast their good fortune, Sullivan stays behind to complete the analysis Dale had begun. It is, as he soon recognizes, a harbinger of financial apocalypse. Sullivan summons his boss (Paul Bettany), who summons his boss (Kevin Spacey), who summons his boss (Simon Baker), each fish bigger than the last, all the way up to the biggest fish in the pond: a primeval creature named Tuld, who arrives by helicopter and is played by Jeremy Irons.

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Christopher Orr is a senior editor and the principal film critic at The Atlantic. He has written on movies for The New Republic, LA Weekly, Salon, and The New York Sun, and has worked as an editor for numerous publications.

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