Big Screen Review :: Margin Call

March 13th 2012


If you don’t have a passing familiarity with what was behind the events of the Global Financial Crisis you are going to find parts of Margin Call hard to believe. Like how one number cruncher can run one report over a couple of hours that contains data shocking enough to trigger the whole crisis, rendering each senior executive who looks at it dumbfounded after a couple of seconds as they suddenly realise that the company they work for owes many times what it is worth, its asset sheet loaded with worthless trash. Documentaries like Inside Job have done a compelling job of convincing me that these dickheads really were that stupid, and that their business was (and continues to be) built on this kind of lunacy and fraud though, so I had no trouble buying it.

Margin Call is set the night before Wall Street crumbled, and imagines how events might have played out in an unnamed investment bank that stands in for Lehman Brothers. We watch how the report that Zachary Quinto’s risk analyst runs sends shockwaves up their senior executives through Paul Bettany, Kevin Spacey, Demi Moore, Simon Baker, and up to head dickhead Jeremy Irons, who must then decide if he will trigger the GFC by selling all of the company’s worthless assets over one frenetic day, before anyone realises that they are junk.

Writer/Director JC Chandor’s Oscar-nominated script does a terrific job sketching the power structures and dynamics of the company. We see the problem escalate up and out over the course of the night, the script effortlessly climbing up the corporate ladder. The film treats its characters dispassionately. They aren’t overtly portrayed as the moustache twirling villains they most certainly are, and the film is set entirely in their world, so no one from the outside steps in to tell the audience how wrong all of this is. Instead it trusts us to figure that out for ourselves. We meet brilliant engineers and rocket scientists paid 100 times what they could earn building bridges or in research for playing with numbers and selling deliberately impenetrable garbage. We watch every one of them put the welfare of the company above all questions of honesty, morality and the common good. Time and again they will express concerns that cheerfully vanish when a cheque is waved in their face. Given that the company is worse than bankrupt, there sure do seem to be a lot cheques going around. The film has the feel of a TV movie, though it’s hard to be cinematic when you are mostly confined to office space. In the end though, the quality of the script and performances was more than enough to hold my interest. Like watching a good documentary on a subject you are already familiar with, I enjoyed Margin Call, but didn’t learn anything new. It did stoke the healthy fires of hatred towards the jerks that paid themselves billions for causing this mess, which is always a good thing.


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