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Margin Call

Be First. Be Smarter. Or Cheat.

In “Margin Call,” the executives working late at an imperilled investment firm in Manhattan stand in an office tower and stare at the lights and the streets below, wondering if the great city isn’t a dream. The movie is a fictionalized account of a disastrous twenty-four hours in 2008, when “financial instruments” that had seemed solid dissolved into air. The rush of panic is halted, now and then, by moments of disbelief. Earlier in the movie, two of the company’s young analysts, sitting in the back of a Lincoln Town Car, look out at the people walking by and marvel at how little they comprehend of what is about to hit them. As visual and verbal rhetoric, the awe-inspiring appearance of Manhattan at night and the moods of choking anxiety aren’t terribly fresh, but the writing and the acting in “Margin Call” are so good that we get completely caught up. When the investment guys ask if we’re aware of what’s happening, we look at them and ask the same thing. What were people like this thinking? How could men and women paid fortunes for their judgment have continued, as late as 2008, to package, repackage, and sell billions of dollars in bonds backed by subprime mortgages? Our sense of the unreality of their enterprise is far greater than their wonder at our innocence. As the movie opens, people at the firm are being summoned to a glass-walled conference room and politely told to clear out. Among the victims is an uncomplaining risk-management executive, Eric Dale (Stanley Tucci), who, leaving with nineteen years of his life in a cardboard box, passes a flash drive to Peter Sullivan (Zachary Quinto), one of the young analysts. “Be careful,” he says. Staying late on the trading floor, and plugging Dale’s numbers into standard volatility models, Sullivan quickly understands: if the mortgage-backed securities currently on the company’s books, which are heavily leveraged, decline in value by an additional twenty-five per cent, the company’s losses will be greater than its total market capitalization. “Margin Call” is one of the strongest American films of the year and easily the best Wall Street movie ever made. It’s about corporate manners—the protocols of hierarchy, the rituals of power, and, most of all, the difficulty of confronting flagrant habits of speculation with truth. That moment is avoided until it’s absolutely necessary, at which point communication among the responsible parties becomes exceptionally nasty. The young writer-director, J. C. Chandor, has made documentaries and commercials, but he’s never had a script produced before, and this is his first feature as a director. Chandor’s only obvious qualification is that his father spent forty years at Merrill Lynch, which, like Bear Stearns and Lehman Brothers, destroyed itself with an excess of mortgage-backed securities and finally, in 2008, subsided, at a bargain rate, into the arms of a wealthier firm. Chandor is a beginner, but, to my ears, the terse, generally understated, yet sometimes barbarously rude language feels exactly right. I would guess that he has studied David Mamet’s work, digesting the dramatic value of repetition and silence in, say, “Glengarry Glen Ross,” along with the play’s stunned outrage and the characters’ strangely displaced, almost disembodied reactions as some appalling reality swings into view. Chandor’s prickly script attracted a talented cast. At the company, Sullivan’s findings quickly work their way upward: first, to his immediate superior, Will Emerson (Paul Bettany), a cocky, cynical, free-spending pit boss with a streak of decency; then to the longtime head of trading, Sam Rogers (Kevin Spacey), a lonely man who believes that the company does some good in the world and finds himself grieving excessively over his dog, who is dying of cancer (a decent enough symbol); then to the head of risk, Sarah Robertson (Demi Moore), who warned of danger but still has to take the fall; then to their boss, Jared Cohen (Simon Baker), a severely controlled corporate snake; and then, at last, to the C.E.O., John Tuld (Jeremy Irons). Tuld sweeps in by helicopter, assembles everyone in a conference room at 2 A.M., and, with debonair flourishes, devises a desperate strategy: dump the “greatest pile of odiferous excrement in the history of capitalism” the next day; sell all of it, at discounted rates, in a few hours, before word gets around to buyers that the paper is nearly worthless. There are a few such group meetings in “Margin Call,” but most of the scenes play out with just two or three characters bullying or appeasing one another. (Is this guy my ally? Will I survive this mess?) Chandor has worked out what all these people think of one another while keeping the drama steadily moving forward—no easy job—and if there’s a false note or an overwrought scene in “Margin Call” I couldn’t find it. Chandor has just enough camera technique to do what he needs to do. In this largely indoor movie, the city looming outside is a palpable presence; the camera, quiet and relentless in moments of confrontation, tracks silently at night through the empty trading floor, a ghost invading a once healthy company. The second half of the movie is devoted principally to the conflict between Tuld (his name a not too subtle play on that of Dick Fuld, the former head of Lehman), who thinks that investment is merely the greatest of games, and always subject to bubbles and crashes; and Sam Rogers, who hesitates to carry out Tuld’s strategy, on the plausible ground that if you peddle junk to your customers they will never buy anything from you again. Kill trust, and you kill the market, he says. But Tuld waves away his worries. The game will go on, he believes; the firm will rise again and make money. Irons is stentorian, charming, threatening. Spacey, after a long career of playing acidulous bad guys, gives a performance of surprising gentleness. As Rogers, sleepless, makes a speech to his traders in the morning, prepping them for the unsavory task ahead, Spacey’s body slumps and his facial muscles go slack. Will Rogers walk out on Tuld? In “Margin Call,” money insistently pushes its way into personal decisions; the movie is sympathetic to the executives’ plight but hard-nosed about their constant desire to elevate pay packages over principle. Courtesy David Denby, The New Yorker Official Trailer
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Directed by: 
J.C. Chandor
Running Time: 
Starring Kevin Spacey, Paul Bettany, Jeremy Irons, Zachary Quinto, Penn Badgley, Simon Baker, Stanley Tucci, and Demi Moore
Screenplay by: 
J.C. Chandor

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