(MA) Paramount DVD/BD
Margin Call is set during 24-hours in the offices of a Wall Street merchant bank teetering on the crest of the wave that would break into the financial crisis 2008. The merchant bank is fictitious, but it’s not hard to imagine that it is modelled on the soon-to-collapse Lehmann Brothers.
The fuse is lit by a brutal day of retrenchments, where people are called from their desks, given the bad news and marched out the door. One such evictee is the only person smart enough to work out that something is wrong — that the bank’s sophisticated financial products are turning into toxic loss-makers that are about to bring the bank to its knees.
The cast is outstanding; portraying the conflicted characters who inhabit the food chain of the bank. At the bottom are the ex-rocket scientist Peter Sullivan (Zachary Quinto) and his twitchy fellow analyst Seth Bregman (Penn Badgley), then their boss, the street-wise Will Emerson (Paul Bettany). His boss is the long-serving head of trading Sam Rogers (Kevin Spacey). Then there is his young and elusive boss Jared Cohen (Simon Baker), and the person on whose watch things have gone bad, risk chief Sarah Robertson (Demi Moore).
There is no doubt who is at the top of the food chain: chief executive John Tuld (Jeremy Irons) arrives to the pre-dawn emergency meeting in a helicopter.
The strength of the film is its effective portrayal of the real world ethical dilemmas facing the characters. There is no right answer, there is no noble course of action — they have to choose how they are going to act, individually and together, without knowing how bad the outcome is really going to be. There are characters to love and to hate, but no-one is a clean-skin hero.
Spacey is a standout and, without giving it away, his role in the poignant and rather surprising end of the film is a highlight.
The screenplay was nominated for the Best Original Screenplay Oscar this year and it’s hard to see how it didn’t win.
Grittier and more intense than Company Men, Margin Call is a slow-burn thriller that should not intimidate non-financial types. Essential viewing.
Note: While totally in context and believable, the frequent strong language in this film justifies its MA rating.
Dave Cornford is a Sydney based writer whose book, Cracks in the Ceiling, is a collection of short stories set against the backdrop of the GFC.