"Margin Call" captures 24 hours in the lives of a group of traders and executives, on the eve of the 2008 subprime mortgage crisis. Their firm, MBS, is fictional, but is clearly patterned off of Lehman Brothers and the other financial companies that made headlines around the globe for their recklessness and malfeasance. There have been numerous documentaries and dramatizations on the crisis already, but "Margin Call" is easily among the most nuanced and character-driven.
It takes a while for the vital characters in this drama to emerge. At first we follow a pair of low-level analysts, Peter Sullivan (Zachary Quinto) and Seth Bregman (Penn Badgley), weathering a round of layoffs that claim their immediate supervisor, Eric Dale (Stanley Tucci). Eric leaves an unfinished project to Peter, who puts in a late night to complete it - a risk analysis model that predicts the certain doom of the firm. Peter and Seth alert their boss Will Emerson (Paul Bettany), who in turn alerts his boss, Sam Rogers (Kevin Spacey), a thirty-five year veteran who runs the firm's trading operations. A late night turns into an early morning as higher and higher levels of management arrive and escalate the situation further. Sam's boss Cohen (Simon Baker) pulls in Sarah Robertson (Demi Moore) and Ramesh Shah (Aasif Mandvi) for second opinions, and finally calls a meeting of all the senior executives, including CEO John Tuld (Jeremy Irons), who descends from the heavens in a private helicopter.
Sam Rogers emerges as the lynchpin, a good man asked to compromise his morals and play executioner as brutal damage control tactics are put in motion. Kevin Spacey's performance here is his among his best, leading a superb ensemble cast. Stanley Tucci sets the bar in the opening layoff scenes, saying plenty with minimal dialogue. Paul Bettany gets some of the best lines, full of bile and self-hatred as the situation worsens. Much of the film documents quiet, urgent conversations between two or three characters at a time, giving the actors a chance to play off each other in various combinations. The approach feels a little gimmicky, but with a cast this strong it works. The script wisely doesn't push too hard for any sort of climactic finale, keeping the drama on a personal, approachable level. Some of the best moments are in the pre-dawn hours after the characters' fates have largely been decided, and they simply wait, mostly alone, for the axe to fall.
In addition to humanizing the individual players, "Margin Call" also does an excellent job of capturing the ruthless corporate culture and twisted ethics endemic in these financial firms. Penn Badgley's character is the low man on the totem pole, swept up in the night's events by chance. Throughout the film he tabulates the other characters' salaries, their ages, their positions in the firm, and other traditional measures of success. The scorekeeping is a little too obvious as counterpoint to the coming collapse, but pays off in impressive fashion when Badgley finally gets his own moment of personal reflection. And it's only the tip of the iceberg. In conversation after conversation, the audience is shown how money supplants loyalties, ethics, and even basic human empathy. The size of a bonus or compensation package is expected to assuage all ills. In a revealing moment, when CEO Tuld is confronted about a particularly heinous decision, he shrugs it off. "It's only money," he explains, cementing his imperviousness to the pain he's caused.
On that note, the scripting and direction by first time filmmaker J.C. Chandor is impressive but lacks finesse. He hits all the right story beats and emotional notes, but he tends to hit some too hard and others not hard enough. Though the story centers around the young analyst Peter Sullivan, he's about the least interesting character of the lot, and Zachary Quinto doesn't have a whole lot to do beyond playing straight man to the other actors. Demi Moore is severely underutilized, though she's makes a great, seething impression in her few scenes. Simon Baker and Jeremy Irons' odious executives could have benefited greatly from a little more texture. And while the camera makes the most of the New York City skylines, ornate conference rooms, and night driving sequences, there's little that makes the visuals distinctive or memorable.
These are all minor issues, but the film has so much going for it, particularly the performances, it's the little things that stand out. I doubt this will be the last film about the 2008 Wall Street crisis we'll be seeing, as the event has such potential for really probing, interesting narratives. "Margin Call" accomplishes plenty, but I can't help wishing the filmmakers' ambitions had been a little larger, and that they'd taken advantage of their material to a fuller extent.