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DB At The Movies: Margin Call

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The following post is by Dealbreaker reader and commenter Infinite Guest.

"Margin Call" is not "Wall Street," "Boiler Room," or "Glengarry Glen Ross." It's not trying to be any of those. There are no fistfights, car chases or explosions. There are no dick jokes. Strippers, hookers and blow are alluded to, but remain off-screen. Despite the short time line and urgency of the situation, nobody races against a literal ticking clock. And the kind of person who hates "Star Wars" because sound doesn't travel in a vacuum or who gave up on "Full Metal Jacket" when Pyle somehow managed to get a loaded gun off the range will not be able to sit through "Margin Call:" it requires some suspension of disbelief.

On the other hand, if you want to spend two hours reliving the feelings of despair and helplessness from 2008, this might just be your movie.

“Margin Call” takes place over a day and a half in the life of a major investment bank. Eric Dale, played by Stanley Tucci, is a lifer who is laid off in the opening scene. The head of risk for fixed income, he has been re-evaluating the firm’s exposure to interest rate volatility and is troubled by what he sees, but hasn’t quite finished his analysis. As security escorts him from the building he hands a USB flash drive containing his work to a subordinate, Peter Sullivan (Zachary Quinto, who also produced). That evening Sullivan completes the analysis and determines that under the prevailing level of volatility, the firm stands to lose over a trillion dollars. He calls head trader Will Emerson (Paul Bettany, who is excellent) to double-check his work. Emerson comes back, and he calls his boss, who calls his boss, who calls CEO John "Tuld" (Jeremy Irons). Sullivan presents his work at a late-night meeting where Tuld decides that to save the firm, the only option is to liquidate the firm's MBS desk as soon as the markets open in the morning.

J. C. Chandor, the first-time filmmaker who wrote and directed, gives us something in the Soviet-instructional style. Chandor gives nearly all of his characters time to explain where they see themselves in the firm, the industry and the larger society. They are all recognizable "types." Although their relationships are cold and superficial, their emotional range, actions, and even capacity to act are extremely limited, the very strong cast does a fine job fleshing them out.

Kevin Spacey turns in the strongest performance as Sales & Trading manager Sam Rogers. His is also the fullest role; it probably helps that Chandor's father held a comparable position at Merrill. Sam's dog "Ella" is dying of cancer at the start of the film and Rogers buries her at the end. Stanley Tucci also gives a moving performance.

Jeremy Irons plays Tuld as charming and cynical to the point of nihilism. But too detached. I would believe him as a CEO facing the prospect of slightly missing quarterly earnings, but in
this context, facing the bankruptcy of his firm and the imminent collapse of the global financial system, not even John Thain kept his cool. Demi Moore as Sarah Robertson, the Erin Callan-type character, is too vague. She projects fear well, and occasional petty anger, but Robertson does not appear capable of either risk or management. I don’t know whether the script, the direction, or Moore’s acting is to blame, but every CRO of a major investment bank has at least some appearance of competence. Simon Baker gives a nuanced performance as Sam's boss and Robertson's rival, ambitious and politically astute, in the mold of Jamie Dimon from his Travelers Group days. Zachary Quinto struck me as the Zoolander of quants. His most memorable moment comes early when he puts a USB flash drive in his mouth. I've never seen anyone do that. Rounding out the cast is Penn Badgley as second-year analyst Seth Bregman. Green, self-centered, obsessed with money, out of his depth on a good day and completely overwhelmed by the events taking place around him, Badgely fits the role perfectly and provides most of the very few lighter moments as the gravity of his unhappy circumstance sinks in.

Call me old-fashioned, but I like a movie whose characters make choices and live with results. Most of the emotional power in "Margin Call" comes from Mr. Chandor's deliberate refusal to let that to happen. His characters have no options. They are all cogs in a machine that has ground them down and is about to spit them out. The only person who can make decisions is Tuld. There's some validity to that portrayal. There was no shortage of fatalism in the days surrounding the Lehman Brothers collapse. There are touches of verisimilitude throughout. Production designer John Paino gets the look exactly right. And "Margin Call" may give us the closest thing we can ever expect to a sympathetic portrayal. Still, it would have been nice, and dramatic, to see someone try; to see someone actually struggle; to see someone put up at least a little bit of a fight despite the odds. Most of the film follows the action from Zoolander's discovery of a fatal flaw in their risk management framework up the management chain to Tuld, who immediately chooses to get out before his competitors realize what's happening. The rest is dénouement.

I saw it at the New Directors/New Films Festival, where the audience was engrossed. For all its lack of action it definitely holds your attention. It pulls off the neat trick of maintaining suspense despite inevitability.


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