'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

margin call kevin spacy 615.jpg
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."

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.

As we work our way up this food chain, one character after another seems set up as narrative foil or villain-in-waiting: Bettany's tough, crew-cutted Brit, grinding Nicorette lozenges between his teeth as if they were competitors; Spacey's mid-level exec, pining for a sick dog while inured to the human toll around him; Irons's sardonic, sepulchral CEO. Yet with a minor exception or two, there are no white hats or black hats to be found here, merely modern-day shades of gray flannel. Chandor's film is less a portrait of individual malfeasance than of systemic, cultural failure. His characters have made their moral compromises gradually, selling off bits of themselves at a loss, piece by piece, until they find that their debts outweigh their assets and the only evident way out is to keep going.

The movie unfolds as a series of confrontations and collaborations between these characters, and though their outcomes are never much in doubt they are charged with urgency and intelligence. There are discussions of blame (which runs, as ever, downhill); bouts of lofty rationalization; and weighings of self-preservation against the public interest. (One need not be a student of the crisis to know how these turn out.) When Spacey warns of creating a panic in the markets, Irons responds drily, "If you're the first one out the door, that's not called panicking."

Margin Call is perforated with sharp insights. Each ascending echelon of the bank's hierarchy has a weaker understanding of the complex financial instruments they are trading than the one beneath it. ("Just speak to me in English," Spacey tells his analysts at one point; "Speak as you might to a young child, or a golden retriever," requests Irons at another.) And though this is a story of people wedded to their jobs, the lone female executive (Demi Moore) is the only one for whom that marriage appears to be exclusive, and the consolations of family an unaffordable luxury.

The cast is uniformly and uncommonly good, even by their generally lofty standards. Spacey in particular offers his best performance in years, emerging bit by bit as the closest thing the movie has to a conscience, however muddied. And Moore has a brittle, sexless authenticity as the Only Woman in the Room. This may be her first film set in an office in which no one throws anyone else lustfully across a desk.

Chandor's direction is understated but self-assured, and his script—which has more than a hint of Mamet to it—superb. Indeed, this is the all-too-rare film that began with a screenplay and then filled in the "talent," rather than the other way around. (It is also the fledgling venture of Quinto's production company, Before the Door.)

With luck, the Occupy Wall Street movement will offer Margin Call newfound salience, and a broader audience than it might otherwise have reached. But whether or not this is the case, Chandor's film is among the best of the year to date, a fable of global financial calamity distilled down to an intimate microcosm of human greed and frailty.