Wednesday, November 09, 2011

Margin Call: The Calm Before the Financial Storm

Margin Call
Written and Directed By: J.C. Chandor
Starring: Kevin Spacey, Paul Bettany, Jeremy Irons, Zachary Quinto, Penn Badgley, Simon Baker, Demi Moore, Stanley Tucci, and Mary McDonnell
Director of Photography: Frank G. DeMarco, Editor: Pete Beaudreau, Production Designer: John Paino, Original Music: Nathan Larson
Rated: R for usual office language

            Margin Call, a new drama about moments before the financial crisis from newcomer J.C. Chandor, has timed its release either perfectly or terribly, depending on how you consider your political affiliations. In the atmosphere of Occupy Wall Street, Mr. Chandor has crafted a film specifically about the 1%, the men (and one woman) responsible for leading our financial situation into a tailspin in the fall of 2008. “Forgive them Father, for they know not what they are doing,” need not apply to these guys—they knew exactly what they were doing as they tried to save the company and their livelihoods. 

            Modeled similar to Dante’s Inferno (we head up instead of down in the corporate world), and loosely based on the collapse of Lehman Brothers, Margin Call brings us inside a fateful 48-hour period in a major financial film where bad news is already on its way. As the film starts, two young associates (Zachary Quinto and Penn Badgley) look on as HR storms its way into the office, eliminating over half of their floor, most notably their boss, Eric (Stanley Tucci). As Eric leaves the office, he hands a flash drive to Peter (Mr. Quinto) and warns him, “be careful.” A superstar rocket scientist turned financier (for the money—why else?), Peter quickly analyzes the data and discovers the horror in the data: their entire assets are worthless, and the loss they hold is greater than the company’s entire worth.

Trying to play inside-ball ala David Mamet, Mr. Chandor attempts to keep the language somewhat coded (everyone uses MBS instead of Mortgage-Backed Securities), even though the higher ups constantly ask for an explanation in plain English. His structure, as the film heads from one boss to another, is where the film’s unique strategy pays off. Peter’s data travels up the totem pole as each boss realizes that the danger ahead, and must decide what to do in order to save the company. Mr. Chandor is no Mr. Mamet; his dialogue is often clunky and has a slower pace, but he’s also a more reserved stylist. His shots have a Lumet-like quality to them, and the dark blue hues of his office create a cold and sterile world that refuses emotion in favor of logical solutions. He often goes for quiet moment between reflections of what lead to this mess than messy emotional scenes that would rarely make sense.

But Mr. Chandor can’t resist knowing the outcome of his story, often populating it with references that remove the story from outside the high tower and into the larger consequences. Peter, traveling by company car to fetch a missing link, mutters to his partner “Do these people know what’s about the happen?” No, they don’t, and there’s no need to speak it (Another poor moment: a character looks down from the top of a skyscraper and remarks, “It’s a long way down”). Inside baseball movies work best when nobody can see the bigger picture, and everyone only understands the circumstances of their own world. And if it wasn’t for Mr. Chandor’s standout cast (Kevin Spacey, Paul Bettany, Jeremy Irons, Simon Baker, and Demi Moore), the on-the-nose references would kill any of the suspense of how Margin Call plays out.

None of these references are strictly political, however, and Mr. Chandor tries to play to both sides here by condemning those at the very top while sympathizing with those who are on the bottom, even if they manage to scrape more than their share of wealth in their severance packages. Because Mr. Chandor mostly stays inside the bubble of the wealth, he creates his own world of moral relativism. Mr. Quinto and Mr. Badgley are nice guys just trying to make a buck, following their orders from those on top (Mr. Irons plays the head honcho, and in a late scene he devours a steak in the company restaurant, if you needed any more reason to find him evil). 

By the end of the film, the pieces have been put in place for a disastrous future we now continue to face. Mr. Chandor allows that to sit outside the scope of his narrative, and Margin Call asks us to see what these guys were trying to do. Mr. Chandor constantly acknowledges the irony of his film, as we learn about the difference salaries and bonuses each person receives (Paul Bettany’s character reveals he spent $75,000 on liquor and prostitutes in the last year). And perhaps that’s the biggest issue with Margin Call; as much as we can feel for those stuck in this moral quandary, their salaries will always keep them safe above the clouds.

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