Movie Review: Margin Call
Rating: R (language)
Length: 107 minutes
Release Date: October 21, 2011
Directed by: J .C. Chandor
Stars: 4 out of 5
"Margin Call" is not based on a true story but does have its roots in true events. The setting is a nondescript brokerage firm on Wall Street. It is the summer of 2008, when the battle to see who would succeed George W. Bush as president was ramping up. The stock market was at unprecedented highs. Very few, if any, could see the brewing financial storm ahead.
Slowly but surely, investment banks began to either shut their doors for good or fire off large amounts of staff. The firm where the film is set begins laying off senior staff to cut costs. A handful of young traders are saved because they earn much less than their older counterparts. One employee who is spared the ax is Peter Sullivan (Zachary Quinto), who plays a big role in getting the plot going.
Analyst Eric Dale (Stanley Tucci) hands Sullivan a flash drive as he heads out the door, a casualty of the day's layoffs. Dale looks at the data on the drive and realizes that it holds information about just how bad the financial crisis may get. He calls his supervisor Will Emerson (Paul Bettany) and tells him that he has some pretty damaging data to show him.
Emerson is no fool and soon has his own boss Sam Rogers (Kevin Spacey) looking over the information. It is deemed dire enough that CEO John Tuld (Jeremy Irons) arrives by helicopter, underscoring the amount of disposable wealth these Wall Street companies had at the time.
Tuld is given the bad news and must now decide whether or not to make the margin call that serves as the film's title. A margin call is when a company tries to dump their bad debt and toxic assets in a rush before shareholders and the public find out just how bad things are.
All of the action from start to finish takes place in about 12 hours. Each scene is as tense as the one before it. The script by newcomer J.C. Chandor manages to tell the story of the financial crisis in a way that anyone can understand. One of the real gems of this movie is that those who have no clue about the stock market can still follow along and understand just how high the stakes are.
The acting is superb from top to bottom, which is not surprising considering the caliber of the cast. Chandor, who also directed the film, hardly needs to coax a great performance out of any of these actors. What he does instead is frame the shots in a way that feels almost claustrophobic. These men are trapped by actions of their own doing, and the movie makes it feel like the walls are closing in on them. This is a huge testament to the skills of first-time director Chandor.
The film does not make villains out of any of the characters, though it certainly could have. Power brokers like these characters nearly brought the United States to its knees in real life. Chandor could have easily made them stock bad guy characters. Instead, he chose to humanize them and throw a tiny bit of pity their way. Despite this, there will be no redemption for these characters, margin call or not.
No matter what your thoughts on the financial crisis are, "Margin Call" will keep you glued to the screen. It gives a fishbowl-like look at the earliest days of the crisis and the way decisions that would affect the entire world were made. It is powerful, tense, well written and well acted. J.C. Chandor has made an explosive first film that will leave audiences wondering what is next for this up-and-coming writer/director.