JWR Articles: Film/DVD - Margin Call (Director/Writer: J.C. Chandor) - December 31, 2011

Margin Call

4 4
107 min.

It doesn’t take rocket science

All of those on either side of the greed equation will admire director/writer J.C. Chandor’s taut tale of Wall Street brokers at their worst. This re-enactment of America’s self-induced meltdown feels more real than most documentaries trying to cover the same territory (cross-reference below).

The drama lifts off when a massive layoff at a top firm includes company veteran Eric Dale (Stanley Tucci in fine form as the dispensable money mover). Unbeknownst to hatchet person Mary Roberts (Mary McDonnell has no problem portraying the house cleaner who inadvertently unleashes the maelstrom of worthless mortgage-backed securities that will bring the corporate monolith to its knees, just as Demi Moore demonstartes the ice in her veins in the boardroom as Sarah Robertson), Dale has been doing his sums and has almost realized—ahead of the pack—just how bad the firm’s exposure is. As he leaves the workplace clutching a box of personal effects (rather like the forensic auditors will do on a much larger scale in the months to come) he thrusts a memory stick filled with his suspicions into the very young hand of a survivor. In no time at all, Peter Sullivan (played with equal doses of stoicism and realism by Zachary Quinto) unravels the mess—after all he was a full-fledged rocket scientist but didn’t like the pay ….

A mild sense of loyalty and stronger feeling for self-preservation causes Sullivan to share his findings with the powers that be. Will Emerson (Paul Bettany has a fine turn at leaving his soul at home in order to win at any cost in the office) falls quickly into survival mode. Sam Rogers (it’s hard to imagine anyone but Kevin Spacey breathing convincing life into the most complex role of the lot) sees the disaster coming in a flash, only adding to his inner angst: the divorced executive’s constant companion, Ella, seems to be beyond even the ministrations of a sympathetic veterinarian. Despite the late hour, the executive team (and not a few subordinates) return to their scene of many crimes to work through the night and come up with a skin-saving solution before the next day’s opening bell.

Leading the fray is Chairman of the Board John Tuld. Like Spacey, if necessarily much more one dimensional, Jeremy Irons leads his troops with unswerving, self-serving conviction. The about to be useless, over-traded (and valued) paper must be summarily disposed of. For one day only, it’s sell, sell, sell: no buying allowed. What’s left of the sales force is rallied at dawn and soon start calling in their “friends,” taking virtually any price for the investment rubbish because “our loss is your gain” on this unbelievable “moving day.”

Chandor, his talented cast and crew (cinematographer Frank DeMarco and editor Pete Beaudreau capture every frame of John Paino’s marvellously thought-out production design) do a masterful job pushing the envelope of ruthlessness and hubris. Most thinking people might occasionally say, “but it couldn’t happen here” before remembering just how widespread the crash was. More curious still, the fact that so many did survive the meltdown with jobs intact, get-of-jail-free cards and—after a year or so of drought—the resumption of outlandish bonuses just continues to reinforce the mantra of white-collar thieves masquerading as professional advisors: just don’t get caught.

Thank goodness those lessons have been learned and that massive amounts of systemic debt will never trouble the planet again. JWR

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