Wall St. saga of traders, traitors
By Michael O'Sullivan
Friday, Oct 21, 2011
There's a funny, and telling, line in "Margin Call," a smart, harrowing and mordant drama set inside a fictional Wall Street firm at the trip-wire moment just before the 2008 financial collapse. The head of the company, John Tuld, is about to get some bad news of the imminent implosion of his company's net worth, mostly in the form of the now-infamous mortgage-backed securities.
Tuld - played by Jeremy Irons, with just the right mix of patrician charm, obtuseness about numbers and shrewd, if less than warm and fuzzy people-management skills - tells the young numbers cruncher, Peter (Zachary Quinto), who's about to explain the predicament, to break it down in layman's terms. "Speak to me as you would to a small child," Tuld says. "Or a golden retriever."
It's telling, because the film (written and directed by J.C. Chandor) goes out of its way to make a subject that's almost mind-bogglingly complex not only accessible but emotionally compelling. It's funny, because what comes out of Peter's mouth is still pretty inside-basebally.
Even so, the film plays like a thriller. Taking place over the course of one 24-hour period - from a morning of layoffs that sets the plot in motion to sunrise of the next day - the movie makes abstruse financial instruments seem simultaneously seductive and scary, illuminating the moral issues underlying even the simplest transactions.
The setup is simple: In order for the firm to survive the coming meltdown, it's going to have to screw over a whole bunch of what one executive, Will (Paul Bettany), calls the "regular people," before anyone else does.
What's interesting is that there are no regular people seen in the film, except for a stray janitor or two. The disconnect between the masters of the financial universe and working stiffs is also telling.
If the film has a moral center, it's Sam Rogers (Kevin Spacey), a company man positioned about three-fifths of the way up the food chain from Peter to Tuld. Peter works for Eric (Stanley Tucci); Eric works for Will; Will works for Sam; Sam works for Jared (Simon Baker); and they all work for Tuld, who is only ever referred to by his last name.
Sam may not be the only character in the film with a heart - we know he has one because his dog is dying, and he's sad about it - but he's the only one with a heart who also has the power to do something about the coming apocalypse. (His underling Peter has a heart, but no power. Eric had some power, but he was just laid off.)
Sam holds the fate of the company in his hands. He has to rally his brokers to dump millions of dollars of now-worthless paper in order to save his employer. And his own job.
Never mind that in so doing he will lose a bit of his soul.
In writing and directing "Margin Call," Chandor really did his homework. The Wall Street milieu he has created feels dead on: The profanity, the machismo and the moral expediency resonate and feel frighteningly casual.
Chandor's film goes a long way toward making understandable - in vivid, cinematic terms - what exactly happened to make that first big domino fall over. But it also goes a long way toward making something else understandable, and that's the small ethical compromises that were necessary to set up those dominos in the first place.
Contains a lot of colorful language.