As the Occupy Wall Street protests continue and expand, “Margin Call” might seem the right movie at the right time. The psychological drama, which observes roughly 24 hours at a crisis-rocked New York investment firm, is strongly evocative of the 2008 money-quake that shattered major banks and brokerages. But the movie, which opened Friday, may not be set in 2008.
“The actual film has absolutely no time-stamping,” cautions writer-director J.C. Chandor. “The company is unnamed. There are no dates. For me, it was really important that this could have taken place in 2004, in 2005, in 2003.”
The event that inspired Chandor’s script actually occurred in early 2007. The veteran commercial and short-film director, now 37, was involved in a project to rehab a building in New York. A financial industry insider, the godfather of one of Chandor’s partners, offered some urgent advice. “He told us: ‘The world is going to change. I strongly suggest that you get the heck out of this deal.’ ”
They did, and that friendly counsel became the spark for Chandor’s first feature. “I thought back to that guy, and what it was like for him to be walking around for a year or two, making very significant bets that the market was going to turn,” the director says. “I thought it was very interesting from a character-development standpoint . . . to have that gut feeling that the end was nigh.”
Chandor began the project with his longtime friend Joe Jenckes, a D.C. native, as the producer. Later, they were joined by Before the Door, a production company headed by actor Zachary Quinto. He’s probably best known for playing Spock in 2009’s “Star Trek,” though recently he has been in the news for coming out as gay. Quinto took the movie’s central role: a young analyst, trained in rocket science, who discovers that the company’s bad investment in one form of security outweighs all its other holdings combined.
“We started pulling the funding together for this movie about a year and half, two years ago, in the aftermath of the collapse of 2008,” Quinto says. “It was impossible not to see the ramifications of what had happened, everywhere we looked. It informed everything that we were doing.”
The movie’s final budget was only about $3.5 million, but the cast is gilt-edged. Kevin Spacey, Jeremy Irons, Stanley Tucci, Paul Bettany, Simon Baker and Demi Moore play the executives who spend one anxious night trying to reverse the firm’s largely unspecified bad bet. (There is one reference to mortgage-backed securities.)
Chandor had an advantage when he started writing lines for these performers. His father had worked for Merrill Lynch for decades, so the director, who now lives in Rhode Island, grew up around Wall Streeters. “It made it much easier to write the film,” he said. “I knew the voices. I knew what those people spoke about, and what they cared about, pretty well.”
Nell Minow, a critic of both movies and corporations, was impressed by Chandor’s dialogue. “What they said and the way they interacted with each other I thought was very authentic,” says Minow, who writes the “Movie Mom” feature for Beliefnet.com. She is also a co-author of a textbook on corporate governance and serves on the board of GMI, an independent research film specializing in corporate governance.
The movie, she says, “did a very good job of helping us understand the human beings who helped create the problem.”
Chandor, who labels himself “a liberal capitalist,” rejects what he calls “caricatures” of high-risk financial adventurers. “These characters, to me, are not without blame, but they are also not solely to blame.”
The decisions that led to the 2008 crash, he suggests, were not caused by “pure greed. It had more to do with ego, self-worth and all the things we all put into our work.”
The attention paid to the Occupy Wall Street movement can’t hurt “Margin Call,” but Chandor says that “my film is done. It would be inappropriate for me to try to strap on to what those guys and gals down there are trying to do.”
Yet, he adds, “these people, and all of us, have a right to hold all the banking industry accountable. The banking system is there to serve us, to serve the people. It’s not there to make money from money. That is something I believe really strongly.”
“Margin Call,” Minow says, “comes at a teachable moment. The Occupy Wall Street movement has reminded people that the perpetrators of the financial meltdown are still doing the same things.”
Quinto says he has opinions about the fiscal crisis and the protesters, but they’re private. “I’m interested in people having their own opinion and having their own conversation. As the producer of this movie, I think that’s what we’re giving them the opportunity to do.”
One topic for conversation: Do the “Margin Call” executives who survive the movie’s 24-hour bloodbath actually save their firm?
“It’s been widely reported that our film is about a company like Lehman Brothers,” Chandor notes. “It’s left unsaid in the film, so people can take away what they want. But this was a company that, because of the actions it takes — this company’s still in business, in my opinion. These were some of the first people to get out.”
Minow agrees. Of the coldblooded actions taken by Irons’s and Spacey’s characters, she says, “that is how the survivors behaved.”
105 minutes. Rated R for profanity.