What a pleasure it is to see a grown-up movie with superb ensemble acting and an intelligent point of view. Margin Call depicts an all-nighter inside the offices of one Lehmann-like investment banking firm during the 2008 Wall Street collapse. It is mesmerizing from beginning to end without being manipulative. I don’t remember being so transfixed by a movie for quite a while; it is even being called a “thriller,” though that does not seem to me to be the right word (I would suggest “drama”). Keep an eye on writer-director J. C. Chandor, whose first film this is; he is truly remarkable.
From the very first scene, when employees of the firm are paraded past the cubicles of their colleagues on their way to being “downsized,” we are drawn into a world in which greed gets the best of almost everyone, even ordinarily decent people. The firing, a ritual of humiliation, is carried out with subtle touches that set the tone for the entire film. There is an evenness of tone throughout–minimalist musical accompaniment, a cool palette, calm camera work, no “action” to speak of–which makes the crisis all the more heart-thumping. One scene takes place on a narrow balcony on a high floor above the night city; the acrophobes among us will pray for the scene to end, but the effect is achieved with the simplest of means.
The film begins in daylight, but soon the midnight-blue-and-spangled-silver skyline of New York City takes over as the backdrop for the interminable sleepless night just before the firm collapses, as the inner circle of executives and board members debate their options, always with an eye toward their own interests. The cool blue office space, with its glass dividers and its windows high above the city, becomes almost a character in itself, and a scene in an elevator, showing two tall principals negotiating across the head of a small cleaning woman, seems to tell the whole story of the Great Recession in one unforgettable image. The acting is extraordinarily understated and restrained, which heightens the effect; the whole story is written on Kevin Spacey’s face even when he does not say a word. Jeremy Irons does a star turn as the Mephistophelean CEO, but the other actors are even more effective in conveying various shades of guile, weariness, fear, duplicity. Zachary Quinto and Penn Badgley are especially convincing as two young, ambitious, but immature analysts who are ensnared and unmoored by the mendacity that they see appearing all around them. The one false note is the inclusion of a female character (presumably to be politically correct), Demi Moore, who is too glamorous and movie-star-ish for the role.
Roger Ebert makes this simple but penetrating observation:
I think the movie is about how its characters are concerned only by the welfare of their corporations. There is no larger sense of the public good. Corporations are amoral, and exist to survive and succeed, at whatever human cost. This is what the Occupy Wall Street protesters are angry about: They are not against capitalism, but about Wall Street dishonesty and greed.
And David Denby of The New Yorker also ends his review (“the best movie ever made about Wall Street”) with a reference to the Occupy movement:
…the toxic assets were assembled in the first place, and were sold well past the danger point, because the fees from doing so were high enough to extinguish caution. Until the last moment, the smugly reckless top executives don’t even comprehend the firm’s exposure; they need the fledglings, peering into computer models, to explain it to them (not an exaggeration of what happened at several firms). If Wall Street executives find themselves at a loss to understand what the protesters outside are getting at, they could do worse than watch this movie for a few clues.