A thriller without a single gunshot, car chase or bitch slap is what we have with writer / director J.C. Chandor’s Wall Street drama ‘Margin Call’. Did Mr. Chandor pull of this minor miracle? Yes he did, for the most part, yes he did.
Back in 2008, at least as far as financials go, everything went straight to hell. I’m dirt poor so outside of my work 401K going for twelve dollars to six dollars, most of the immediate effect on me and my kind when this occurred was indirect, long term is another story, but for those who were vested in, it was nothing less than catastrophic.
Our film visits a mythical Wall Street brokerage firm just one single day before the bloodletting, a bloodletting they are pretty much responsible for in this alternative reality. Today at this firm, it is head cutting day as employees deemed redundant or doing work which can be dumped onto someone who is making less money, is summarily released from their duties. Tenure be damned. One of these employees is risk analyst Eric Dale (Stanley Tucci) who was working on a financial model of some importance that he was not allowed to finish before security came and rudely escorted him out the front door. Before he left he asked his young protégé Peter Sullivan (Zachary Quinto) to attempt to finish this, and left him with an ominous warning of ‘be careful’. Say what?
So with curiosity getting the best of him, Peter checks out the data, completes the equations, and the news is not good. One of the things this movie does a very good job of is dummying down the complex financial verbiage in ways that people whose financial vocabulary is low, like me, can understand it. Of course it helps that most of the characters often say stuff like ‘Speak English Please’ or ‘Tell me like you are talking to a child’. We appreciate that. None of this means that I can remember what they said, of course, but I know it is bad and I know this firm is in a world of hurt.
An impressive list of actors will proceed to show up to figure out what to do next while climbing up the corporate food chain of this firm. Peter tells his boss Will (Paul Bettany) what he has found, who immediately informs his boss and the floor sales manager Sam (Kevin Spacey) who informs his boss, who he hates in Jared (Simon Baker), who then
places the dreaded call to the Big Boss Mr. Tuld (Jeremy Irons) who has a plan. This plan basically involves destroying the markets and bringing America to its financial knees, because people like Mr. Tuld are not in the business of losing money, no matter what.
The only mystery at this point is whether or not Mr. Tuld can count on his people to execute his amoral plan, and I’ve been told if you throw enough money at a problem, problems tend to get solved. Mr. Tuld knows how to solve problems. Now all that’s left is to sit back and watch people jump out of their high rise windows.
‘Margin Call’ is a film that has no heroes amongst its impressive cast that’s going to ride in, put a stop this nonsense, and save the day. A lot of the characters in the movie are concerned, and even morally outraged about what is about to happen, but ultimately their primary goal, no matter how outraged they might be, is self preservation. If J.C. Chandor’s movie illustrates one point just about perfectly, it is this. The movie is also devoid of a villain, so to speak. If there is a villain, it is the system itself, and while Jeremy Irons character of Mr. Tuld seems like an obvious candidate for a callous antagonist, Mr. Irons plays the character so matter-of-factly, as a man simply attempting to get a job done, that it’s hard to hate on him. Yes, he’s a pure representation of everything that’s bad about a seriously flawed system, but since we now know that this is how the system works, we also know that, unfortunately, that anybody in his position would’ve done what he did.
The director builds the tension gradually and methodically in his film, even though it’s heading towards a ruinous destination we know is unavoidable, with the horror of the story being our behind-the-scenes view of these events and this firm’s conscious effort to willingly and effectively screw over their clientele.
There is a point during this movie, somewhere between when the final decision has been made and the eventual mad sell off of bad product, that the talkative nature of this movie gets the best of it and it does get a little tedious at this point, but admittedly it doesn’t last long as the movie picks up steam again as it careens towards its climax.
As a fictional representation of true events, ‘Margin Call’, at least from where I was sitting, is an unqualified success. The subject matter is well presented, the movie has something to say without preaching this to us, the story is easy to follow while maintaining its intelligence and the performances are outstanding across the board. Is this a cautionary tale? Probably not because this has already happened, and probably will happen again a couple more times, but for a movie about a bunch of dudes… and a hot chick (Demi Moore) in nice suits sitting around computer monitors talking about stuff, it’s nothing less than an accomplishment how entertaining ‘Margin Call’ ended up being.