Margin Call: Back Into the Abyss

10/19/2011 4:00 AM |

Margin Call

Directed by J.C. Chandor

Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke was recently asked his take on HBO’s TV movie Too Big to Fail, about the government’s desperate attempts to stave off a total collapse in the financial crisis. He didn’t need to watch it, he answered: “I’ve seen the original.”

J.C. Chandor’s Margin Call similarly doesn’t capture the gazing-into-the-abyss terror of September 2008, but this is a riveting and intelligent film about the subject, the best yet made.

Set in a Goldman-esque firm at the onset of the credit crunch, Margin Call begins with a dire analysis of the true value of the company’s holdings. The film doesn’t dumb this down; you don’t need to understand how a fixed-income mortgage-backed security works to follow the story, but Chandor’s script doesn’t explain things in lay terms and is more accurate and involving for it. He’s helped by a cast of heavies, actors who are not only skilled but project intelligence and authority.

Kevin Spacey, as an executive with a modicum of integrity, is the closest thing to a moral center in a world where morals don’t figure into the bottom line. Paul Bettany, Stanley Tucci, Demi Moore and Simon Baker fill out the ranks, all with the presence to overshadow the script’s (deliberate) lack of varied and complex personalities. And then there’s Jeremy Irons, in full display as CEO. Few can project such stately loathing, as when an underling asks whether it will be her or someone else who serves as scapegoat. “You,” he responds coolly, “I’d appreciate it if you didn’t fight me on this.”

Call‘s intelligence extends to the filmmaking, which employs long takes and dramatic lighting to subtly up the tension in an unobtrusive way. This could easily be translated to the stage, although as a first-time writer Chandor is a bit too on the nose with polemic speeches—Wall Street salaries v. Wall Street social benefits—and symbolism (it ends with a grave literally being dug).

Still, the cumulative effect is powerful, and the moral questions raised by the actions eventually taken are intriguing. Without casting too much judgment, Chandor astutely dramatizes how when the flood of the crisis began barreling down the economy, morality was the first levee to be breached.

Opens October 21