While the financial crisis has been one of the biggest global events since the Second World War, the film industry has had difficulty dealing with it. Part of the reason for that is the fear that if you just have a bunch of people sitting around talking about numbers, the audience’s eyes will glaze over and they’ll start heading for the exit. However writer/director J.C. Chandor trusts that not everyone completely zones out if things aren’t simple, and also realises that if you get a great bunch of actors together, you can take on subjects that might initially seem dull, but can still actually make a really good film.
Margin Call has a slightly Glengarry Glen Ross feel, in that it’s largely about a bunch of men sitting around talking business and uncovering their work culture, with an excellent cast pulled together to really bring the whole thing to life.
The film is set during the first inklings of the crash, and a big, unnamed financial firm is doing some ‘spring cleaning’, which means making loads of redundancies. One person they fire is Eric Dale (Stanley Tucci), but before he’s escorted out the door he hands a disc to young number cruncher Peter Sullivan (Zachary Quinto), who realises that Eric is onto something big. Finishing Eric’s work Peter discovers that the firm is right on the edge of a major meltdown, and that if the market remains volatile, it’s not long until they’re bankrupt. He calls in his boss (Kevin Spacey), who calls in his boss (Simon Baker), who calls in his boss (Jeremy Irons), and they have to figure out what to do. As the full implications of the numbers becomes clear, it’s apparent the only way out without losing everything, is to deliberately and callously lose a lot of other people an awful lot of cash.
Margin Call walks a delicate tightrope between lines of dialogue few people will understand and trying to simplify relatively complex financial matter for us plebs (there are an awful lot of people saying something like, ‘You know I don’t talk numbers, speak to me in plain English’). While there are times where you wonder why everyone in a financial firm needs everything explained to them as if they were in freshman business class, it certainly helps ensure the film is understandable without treating the audience either like either mathematical savants or as idiots.
The cast helps a lot too, bringing pathos and a very human edge to their be-suited characters, so that even when they’re faced with having to do something unconscionable, they never come across as pantomime villains. Although I’m not sure the film really gets to the heart of the culture that allowed the financial crisis to happen in the first place, it’s very good at giving a human face to the self-preservation that can kick when people’s backs are pushed against the walls. It may not 100% get at why things went down the way they did in 2008, but it convincingly builds a picture of a rather detached world, where self-worth is measured in dollars and chutzpah. Even what they’re buying and selling is just abstract numbers exchanged with a detached voice on the other end of a telephone line.
For what is a very talky film, it’s surprisingly gripping, with a great forward momentum to the script and a plot that’ll keep you gripped. It does a great job of putting the audience in the tricky position of wanting the characters to succeed, even if what they’re succeeding at is something very bad.
It’s little wonder the script was nominated for an Oscar, and the actors should also get plenty of kudos. As well as Stanley Tucci, Zachary Quinto (who also produced), Simon Baker and Jeremy Irons, there’s also Demi Moore, Penn Badgeley, Mary McDonnell and Paul Bettany. They all do a great job in often difficult roles. Paul Bettany deserves extra praise for taking what could have been a total prick of a character and making him perhaps the most fascinating and complex person in the entire feel.
Overall Verdict: There may not be a lot of explosions, no love stories, and a lot of talk about business, but Margin Call is a surprisingly absorbing film that won’t make you think those who worked in finance before the bubble burst should be let off the hook, but it certainly gives them a human face.
Reviewer: Tim Isaac