You don’t need to know a tranche from a derivative to enjoy first-time writer-director J.C. Chandor’s “Margin Call,” a beautifully acted account of the 2008 economic meltdown, centered on a fictional Wall Street investment bank that resembles Lehman Brothers — a lot.
A 24-hour, tick-tock spectacle of a firm trying to save its own collective ass from the Frankenstein monster it invented, the sharply written movie sometimes has the testosterone reek of a David Mamet play. That’s underscored by the presence of Mamet regular Kevin Spacey — though the smell of testosterone here is alloyed with the scent of the best cologne and finest gin money can buy in Manhattan.
Spacey plays Sam Rogers, the boss of trading, who has been at the firm for more than three decades, and it shows. His dog is dying, and he’d rather be at home with her. But he’s needed at the office to rally the troops on the morning after 80 percent of his staff get downsized and marched off the premises.
They include senior risk analyst Eric Dale (the invaluable Stanley Tucci), whose severance package includes the company’s “transition plan”: a magazine with a sailboat on the cover, under the words “Looking Ahead.” It’s one of the film’s excruciatingly on-target depictions of the corporate mind-set, which has established its nest in that cavity where our country’s conscience and soul once resided.
Here’s the bad news for the firm: Dale has been running some numbers and graphs and seen that the company’s long-term reliance on subprime assets is about to blow up. Like, now. This news gets passed along to junior analyst Peter Sullivan (Zachary Quinto), who finds himself in the unenviable position of telling all the suits above him that the party is over. Big time. There’s poetic justice in knowing that employees who smugly survived the morning’s reaping are about to suffer a much harsher 24 hours than their colleagues who got pink-slipped. And there’s fun to be had in watching the players — including Paul Bettany, Simon Baker and Demi Moore — put on their steeliest game faces as they try to save their jobs, or at least score a shiny golden parachute.
Arriving in theaters when economic frustration has spilled onto Wall Street’s sidewalks and around the world, “Margin Call” couldn’t be timelier. It’s also more nuanced than you might expect from a first-time filmmaker like Chandor. His most radical approach to this story is what distinguishes art from easy polemic: he individualizes these people and tries to grant them the dignity of their convictions — or at least their self-justifications.
It would be easy to demonize these characters as ruthless snake oil salesmen. But “Margin Call” shows that some are motivated by loyalty, or an entrenched work ethic (and the need to pay the vet’s bills), or the thrill of playing what is essentially a computer-screen video game, where winning means big bonuses and losing means catastrophe — but only for the suckers who don’t realize the game is rigged.
Perhaps the most representative character is the company’s youngest employee, Seth (Penn Badgley). Half playboy, half puppy, he spends the movie’s long night trying to guess how much money the executives take home per year. He starts to see the bigger picture only when he realizes he’s about to lose his own job. “Shit, this is really gonna affect people,” he says. “I mean, real real people.”
Because every tale of a great fall needs its Satan, “Margin Call” provides one in a CEO named John Tuld (as opposed to real-life Lehman CEO Richard Fuld). Jeremy Irons, in the role, arrives by helicopter and channels the sinister silkiness that earned him an Oscar for playing Claus von Bulow. “It’s just money, it’s made up,” he says near the end, in the dismissive tones that come only from those who have enough of the stuff to speak of it in theoretical terms. As if foreseeing the government bailout, Tuld views the global economic disaster simply as a new opportunity to make more money from different sources.
Written with both economy and verbal pungency, “Margin Call” has the knack of scoring its points and delivering valuable perspectives in dialogue that avoids the artificial sound of speechmaking. (It helps to have such a skilled bunch of actors delivering the lines.) At times, the movie has the hushed intrigue of stripped-down Shakespeare — the politely barbed give-and-take of negotiations unfolding in chambers behind the throne room. That probably oversells “Margin Call.” It’s no masterpiece, but it’s an impressive, limpidly dramatized account of recent events that have changed our bank accounts, and the way we all move forward into the future.
“Margin Call.” With Kevin Spacey, Paul Bettany, Jeremy Irons, Zachary Quinto. Written and directed by J.C. Chandor. 107 minutes. Rated R. At AMC Phipps Plaza 14, Lefont Sandy Springs and Landmark Midtown Art Cinema. Also available as Video On Demand.