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'Margin Call' offers timely look at financial crisis

This savvy and involving film follows the fortunes of a handful of employees and executives at a fictional Manhattan investment firm over the course of a single long night.
/ Source: Reuters

If you want to understand why the financial crisis of 2008 happened and the causes behind it, you should watch the 2010 Oscar-winning documentary, "Inside Job." If you want to understand what the people working at the giant Wall Street monoliths might have felt and been doing as their empires came crashing down -- soon dragging the nation with them -- consider seeing "Margin Call." This savvy and involving indie by first-time feature director J.C. Chandor follows the fortunes of a handful of employees and executives at a fictional Manhattan investment firm over the course of a single long night. It makes clear that the guys on the top aren't always the smartest; they're simply the wiliest and the ones most willing to do whatever it takes to survive. "Margin Call" begins with firings. Eric Dale (Stanley Tucci), a numbers whiz, is being let go in a company-wide downsizing at the firm. As he leaves, he urges an underling, a junior financial researcher named Peter Sullivan (Zachary Quinto, who also produced the film), to follow up on a half-completed analysis on which the older man had been working.

Peter stays late at work that evening to do so and, after making additional calculations and projections, discovers that the firm could be on the verge of going under (shades of Bear Stearns and Lehman Brothers). He notifies his superior (Paul Bettany), and soon the top-level executives are gathering for emergency meetings. Will the firm go under? Will it decide to unload its bad paper before the truth comes out?

There are both heroes and villains here, and disillusionment aplenty. At the top, the cynicism is pervasive. The company's uberboss (Jeremy Irons), a serpent in a Savile Row suit, can barely understand the intricacies of the actual problem but knows he's not going to be the fall guy. As he and the other major players at the firm (Kevin Spacey, Demi Moore and Simon Baker) play the blame game and desperately jockey to maintain their positions, it's clear that these masters of the universe have long since sold their souls-and know it-in exchange for lucre. "Margin Call" purposefully and effectively creates a claustrophobic feel; much of it takes place on the harshly lit trading floor and in conference rooms and offices of the firm. This fiefdom of finance is a world onto itself. Only when its residents emerge from the building into the real world are they able sometimes to think and behave as responsible human beings with motivations and concerns other than money and corporate standing. There are a lot of sharp performances here, a chief pleasure of the film. Quinto ably conveys the growing unease of his young would-be master of the universe; Irons is all reptilian guile; Moore deftly shows the strains on a lone female executive expert at corporate maneuvering; and Spacey and Paul Bettany neatly show that much of Wall Street is populated by guys who are nothing more than glorified, over-compensated salesman. In many ways, "Margin Call" tells a traditional story of innocence lost. Quinto's character, Zachary, is an ambitious young man who, upon getting an up close and intimate look at the real workings of power, comes away disillusioned. Guess that makes him part of the 99 percent.