Margin Call doesn't really feel like a financial thriller. Sure, there are young, good-looking actors decked out in sharp suits, glass skyscrapers with helipads and postcard views of Manhattan and row after row of monitors humming with spreadsheets. But as the story of a major Wall Street firm's implosion unfolds, this film feels more like a WWII movie that takes place on a submarine.
It's all hushed, a bit hurried and everyone seems to know that everything they hold dear - especially their surroundings - is taking on water and about to sink very, very quickly.
Margin Call emerged in theaters late last year to stellar reviews but moviegoers wanted to see New Year's Eve or the latest round of Oscar contenders. It's a shame because Margin Call is a smart and stylish thriller that takes you inside a storied Wall Street firm right before it's about to vanish. If you want an idea what Bear Stearns and Lehman Brothers' last moments were like and how people vied to make sure they were left standing, this is a near-perfect tutorial.
The young writer-director JC Chandor has the pedigree to tell this story: His father worked at Merrill Lynch for 29 years. The young Chandor's tells a big picture with some small, revealing details: Young traders wonder how much their supervisors brought home last year, a hot shot Brit explains how he has nothing to show for $2 million last year - a good chunk went to the exotic dance sector, he admits - and we shouldn't be surprised that the first person to be pushed out hails from the risk team. Stanley Tucci, who could teach a Master Class to young acting students on delivering gravity and a back story to characters without hogging the screen, is sent packing at the beginning of the film but he can't really leave; once his reports are examined by the young risk officer, played by a knowing Zachary Quinto (Star Trek's Spock), he's brought back in. Someone has to make sense of this mess.
Once the sharks sense the danger and the onset of panic, in swims Jeremy Irons as the CEO John Tuld - Lehman Bros CEO Dick Fuld, anyone? - who asks that the news be explained "as if I'm a child, as if I am a golden retriever." Once it's laid bare, he gives his orders and chooses who will take the fall. Demi Moore, not the most expressive actress around and someone not asked to portray vulnerability, is the target and her scenes are well done. After playing the winner in movie after movie in the 1980s and 90s, it's a revelation to see her play someone who's picked to go down with the ship. If that weren't enough, Kevin Spacey sheds his snakeskin and plays a decent human being with a conscience. Who knew?
Margin Call ends with the bank divesting nearly all of its toxic assets and no one discusses asking for a bailout. (Ha!) The managers in their 40s and 50s are fired and the young guns move up to their offices. After all, they're veterans. They are now the jaded elders of the latest financial crisis and tomorrow is another trading day.Phil Albinus is the former editor-in-chief of Advanced Trading. He has nearly two decades of journalism experience and has been covering financial technology and regulation for nine years. Before joining Advanced Trading, he served as editor of Waters, a monthly trade journal ... View Full Bio