When senior risk analyst Eric (Stanley Tucci) is fired - along with 80% of his colleagues at a Wall Street investment firm - he slips a USB drive to colleague Peter (Zachary Quinto), who is so disturbed by what's on it he calls in his supervisor, Will (Paul Bettany) who in turn calls his boss, Sam (Kevin Spacey). An all night emergency meeting of key executives ends when the firm's CEO, John Tuld (Jeremy Irons) arrives at dawn by helicopter. The cool Brit is faced with a tough call - the margin call, to start dumping all the worthless holdings before word gets out. It's 2008, and perhaps the last good day on Wall Street.
Review by Andrew L. Urban:
Margin Call is a disaster movie with a difference. It's about a real disaster and it has touched millions if not billions of people in the past 3 years or so. What's more, the story is not about the actual 'storm' but the eve of it. Actually, the dawn of it. After an all night emergency session of meetings and strategising, key executives in an unnamed Wall Street financial institution, greet the dawn with a plan to sell off the worthless mortgage based assets they have traded, realising the game is up.
Of course the film would be rather dry and dull if all it was about was the fate of this brokerage as a business. What makes it engaging is that the Oscar nominated screenplay explores the people who make the decisions from a moral point of view. And finds them wanting. That's not news to most us, but the fact is that there are shades of grey, and some of these people do have a conscience. The dramatic structure allows us access to their business life - just enough to shed light and understanding on how such a well educated and intelligent group of people could make so many stupid decisions. That's worth our time, because as the film suggests and as we know, the global financial crisis has not resulted in any real, lasting moral cleansing. Wall Street is still up to its neck in greedy but clever idiots.
The key to the film's success is both the writing and the casting. If you cast Jeremy Irons in the role of a corporate salesman worth a billion dollars, you can expect something unique; Irons delivers a wonderful, layered and tangible John Tuld.
Kevin Spacey, carrying the Street's small measure of conscience, also makes a powerful impact as the senior executive who tries to do the right thing in a relative sort of way. He stands to lose his dignity as well as his beloved dog during the course of 24 nasty hours.
Paul Bettany and Zachary Quinto have significant roles as the players on the risk floor who complete the disaster scenario that their colleague Eric (Stanley Tucci) has been working on until he is fired. Simon Baker and Demi Moore are both eerily effective as executives whose corporate scheming is like poison chess.
Written and directed as if it were a thriller by J. C. Chandor, Margin Call doesn't judge its characters; it is observant and even calm, choosing to draw audiences into its world and covering the film in a blanket of melancholy, not anger. The screenplay works hard to make the arcane details accessible - often by having characters demand explanations in 'plain English'. In any case, we are directed to look more at what these characters do and how they rationalise their corporate behaviour.
It's a sobering and important film for anyone who is interested in the world in which we live.
NB: Re the character of John Tuld: the firm is unnamed, but Richard Fuld was CEO of Lehman Brothers, and collected huge bonuses before filing for bankruptcy. But Tuld isn't that far from Turd, either.
Review by Louise Keller:
Sam Rogers (Kevin Spacey), Head of the Risk Management section of an investment bank, has a dog that is dying. But that is not the only thing that is dying in this explosive thriller of words, in which ethics, morals and survival are put to the test as the countdown to the 2008 Global Financial Crisis begins. In his acclaimed screenplay, J.C. Chandor, who also directed the film, has created an enthralling scenario that examines the inner sanctum of Wall Street; the deals, the cut-throat decisions and ugly repercussions of the world that differentiates between fat cats and starving dogs.
The fish-eye lens that reveals New York's financial district in the opening scene, offers a particular skew that is reinforced in the workplace. There's a clear pecking order and everyone tows the line accordingly. When Will Emerson (Paul Bettany), head of training places two fingers in his mouth to execute his shrill cat-call whistle, announcing to the brokers, analysts and junior associates that their boss Rogers is about to make a speech, everyone jumps to attention.
As Eric Dale (Stanley Tucci) is unceremoniously bundled out the door with his personal items stacked in cardboard boxes during a dramatic company cutback, he hands a memory stick containing information relating to the project he is working on to young analyst Peter Sullivan (Zachary Quinto) with the words 'Be careful'. As Sullivan discovers, the contents are dynamite, exposing the volatility levels of the current markets.
This scenario and what follows takes place on one single, life-changing night as the heads of departments meet and ruthless decisions are made. His unmistakable beautiful, deep voice intact and screen presence alive, Jeremy Irons is suitably austere as the company CEO, John Tuld, who lives by his golden rule to be smarter than the rest. He makes it clear that survival is his priority - at any cost. When he asks Sullivan to explain the situation in plain English, his paraphrase involving a bag of excrement and music is an analogy that is appropriately crude.
The handpicked ensemble cast is excellent on all counts. Spacey as the executive with scruples; Paul Bettany, the nicotine-gum chewing risk-taker; Demi Moore's callous Chief Risk Officer; Penn Badgley as the up-and-coming associate and Tucci as the discarded employee. Zachary Quinto (Spok in Star Trek) is terrific as the film's protagonist, the whiz-kid who is bright enough to be a rocket scientist, but chooses finance because of the dollars. Simon Baker is superb as the scruple-less Jared Cohen, the irony being that Baker's high-profile television advertisements for a bank rest on his credibility.
It's a fascinating film that reveals much about its characters and provides food for thought for all of us who live in a capitalist society. Greed may be good for the avaricious but it's sure as hell ugly when it comes at any cost.
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MARGIN CALL (MA15+)
CAST: Stanley Tucci, Kevin Spacey, Paul Bettany, Jeremy Irons, Zachary Quinto, Penn Badgley, Simon Baker, Mary McDonnell, Demi Moore
PRODUCER: Zachary Quinto, Robert Ogden Barnum, Michael Benarova, Neal Dodson, Joe Jenckes, Corey Moosa,
DIRECTOR: J. C. Chandor
SCRIPT: J. C. Chandor
CINEMATOGRAPHER: Frank G. DeMarco
EDITOR: Pete Beaudreau
MUSIC: Nathan Larson
PRODUCTION DESIGN: John Paino
RUNNING TIME: 107 minutes
AUSTRALIAN DISTRIBUTOR: Becker Films
AUSTRALIAN RELEASE: March 15, 2012