Margin Call is Hollywood's first real attempt at portraying the events that led up to—and basically caused—the financial disaster that has consumed this country over the past several years. It's a pretty devastating look at the far-reaching effects of the actions of large investment firms like the one portrayed in the film and the sketchy ethics (or lack thereof) that played no small part in the crash itself.
It's a difficult subject for a couple reasons: one being that there are so many people who have been affected by the recession that it's a bit depressing to see even a fictional account of the events; the other is that it's a difficult subject to fully understand unless you have some sort of background or education in the area.
J.C. Chandor's impressive directorial debut gives us the events of a fictional investment firm over the span of what is roughly a 24-hour period, most of which occurs throughout the night. The film opens amidst a large layoff, when risk management analyst Eric Dale (Stanley Tucci) is being let go. On his way out of the building, Dale passes along his current work to a young employee named Peter Sullivan (Zachary Quinto).
In as simple of terms as I know how to describe the information, Sullivan learns upon completion of the work that excessive leveraging of mortgages have pushed the firm's assets to the brink of worthlessness based on volatility formulas the firm uses to calculate its risk. Things have gotten so bad that by the time the market opens the following morning, the loss the firm will suffer will surpass its actual worth.
The film follows Sullivan and his immediate superiors (played by Paul Bettany and Kevin Spacey) as they begin notifying high ranking officials of the impending disaster, and the subsequent decisions that must be made about how to deal with the significant problem.
Margin Call's biggest strength, to me, is actually it's biggest weakness as well: its realism. For all intents and purposes, Margin Call is a thriller driven by its dialogue, and the reveals come by way of conversation. That can be a problem when the material being discussed is hard to follow. But that's where the realism comes in. After all, big time investors and analysts in a firm of this size wouldn't be speaking in layman's terms that everyone would be able to understand. Even the "dumbed down" descriptions of what is happening, conveniently delivered via some characters' questions, will be way over most people's heads. I had a general idea of what was being discussed, which was more than enough to keep me involved, but I could see where some would get lost or confused by the dialogue and the terms being used.
It's a smart film, and Chandor and the collective of quality actors do an excellent job of turning the material into a near edge-of-your-seat drama. The acting is, for me, what really made Margin Call an excellent film. Spacey is top notch as always, and Bettany and Jeremy Irons (playing the firm's CEO) give two of my favorite supporting performances of the year. With the exception of Demi Moore, who is rigid and emotionless from start to finish, the cast is pretty impressive.
For all of my 2011 reviews, visit: http://mastersofourdomain.blogspot.com/