There’s a line in Margin Call that offers an easy way of evaluating the film. In order to be a success, the film posits, you must either be the first to do something, you must be smarter, or you must cheat. As the first fictional retelling of the financial collapse, Margin Call will probably be remembered in the same way as World Trade Center, the first major film about 9/11.
That is quite a reductive way of looking at the film though. It’s also grossly unfair; while World Trade Center was an insipid melodrama that has since been far outshone by the greater emotional depths of United 93, Margin Call has not sacrificed any polish or complexity in a bid to be first. The film takes places over a 36-hour period at a very successful investment bank loosely modelled after Lehmann Brothers. It starts with downsizing and the firing of Eric Dale (Stanley Tucci), who slips a simulation he’s been working on to young risk analyst Peter Sullivan (Zachary Quinto) before he slips himself out of the office. Peter inputs some numbers and finds out that the company is in an awful lot of trouble, calling in his boss from a nightclub to see the damage. From there boardrooms and managers progressively scale up as each man calls in his superior, resulting in the CEO John Tuld (Jeremy Irons) flying in for a crisis meeting.
Margin Call is a film made like few others. Outside of Hollywood blockbusters, how often do you hear of a first-time director making a film with a cast of the calibre of Jeremy Irons, Kevin Spacey, Paul Bettany, Stanley Tucci and Demi Moore? And this film is far removed from blockbuster territory, made on a budget of just $3.5m. The heavyweight cast performs fantastically, and are complemented by several rising stars that manage to hold their own, such as Zachary Quinto and Penn Badgley. Jeremy Irons outshines everyone and tears up the scenery as the CEO, managing to emanate a terrifying presence that affects everyone in the room. When contrasted with Robert De Niro’s lacklustre performance of much the same character in Limitless, the difference is staggering.
The story is well paced, and while it initially seems a little jargon-heavy and meaningless it comes into its own during the middle segment when the consequences of everything mentioned previously are laid bare in some fiercely debated scenes between Irons and Spacey. It is to the film’s credit that it never reduces its morality to black and white, instead showing you the magnitude of tough decisions where there are no right options. While the last act, a panic-stricken firesale attempted before everyone cottons on, initially seems anti-climatic, on reflection it is pitched perfectly. You expect Kevin Spacey to walk into a room filled with his traders and deliver a rousing battle cry to rally the troops. Instead, it’s given a muted delivery. His character is spent, and his world has just spent a day crashing around his ears. The whole story is as thoughtfully crafted as this, and it never takes the easy option to descend into demonising melodrama.
Margin Call probably won’t be the definitive tale of the financial crisis. The situation takes a little too long to be realised (there will be more than a few sighs of relief when Tuld asks the situation to be explained as if he were a five year-old), and its commitment to balance makes it difficult for any decisive conclusions to be drawn. But with an intelligent plot and a veteran cast performing some of their best roles in years, it’s well worth seeing.
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