Last year Roadside Attractions brought us Winter’s Bone and Biutiful. This year they’re handling distribution for Albert Nobbs, Project Nim, and this weekend deliver the biggest under-the-radar surprise of the month. Margin Call opened in limited release just a few days after being nominated for Best Ensemble by the Gotham Awards. Kevin Spacey, Paul Bettany, Jeremy Irons, Zachary Quinto, Penn Badgley, Simon Baker, Mary McDonnell, Demi Moore, Stanley Tucci, Aasif Mandvi. It’s showing in 56 theaters. Trust me, it’s worth driving quite a distance to find one of those theaters. The New Yorker’s David Denby says it’s “easily the best Wall Street movie ever made.”
In “Margin Call,” the executives working late at an imperiled investment firm in Manhattan stand in an office tower and stare at the lights and the streets below, wondering if the great city isn’t a dream. The movie is a fictionalized account of a disastrous twenty-four hours in 2008, when “financial instruments” that had seemed solid dissolved into air. The rush of panic is halted, now and then, by moments of disbelief. Earlier in the movie, two of the company’s young analysts, sitting in the back of a Lincoln Town Car, look out at the people walking by and marvel at how little they comprehend of what is about to hit them. As visual and verbal rhetoric, the awe-inspiring appearance of Manhattan at night and the moods of choking anxiety aren’t terribly fresh, but the writing and the acting in “Margin Call” are so good that we get completely caught up.
When the investment guys ask if we’re aware of what’s happening, we look at them and ask the same thing. What were people like this thinking? How could men and women paid fortunes for their judgment have continued, as late as 2008, to package, repackage, and sell billions of dollars in bonds backed by subprime mortgages? Our sense of the unreality of their enterprise is far greater than their wonder at our innocence…
“Margin Call” is one of the strongest American films of the year and easily the best Wall Street movie ever made. It’s about corporate manners—the protocols of hierarchy, the rituals of power, and, most of all, the difficulty of confronting flagrant habits of speculation with truth. That moment is avoided until it’s absolutely necessary, at which point communication among the responsible parties becomes exceptionally nasty. The young writer-director, J. C. Chandor, has made documentaries and commercials, but he’s never had a script produced before, and this is his first feature as a director. Chandor’s only obvious qualification is that his father spent forty years at Merrill Lynch, which, like Bear Stearns and Lehman Brothers, destroyed itself with an excess of mortgage-backed securities and finally, in 2008, subsided, at a bargain rate, into the arms of a wealthier firm. Chandor is a beginner, but, to my ears, the terse, generally understated, yet sometimes barbarously rude language feels exactly right. I would guess that he has studied David Mamet’s work, digesting the dramatic value of repetition and silence in, say, “Glengarry Glen Ross,” along with the play’s stunned outrage and the characters’ strangely displaced, almost disembodied reactions as some appalling reality swings into view.
Chandor’s prickly script attracted a talented cast. … He has worked out what all these people think of one another while keeping the drama steadily moving forward—no easy job—and if there’s a false note or an overwrought scene in “Margin Call” I couldn’t find it. Chandor has just enough camera technique to do what he needs to do. In this largely indoor movie, the city looming outside is a palpable presence; the camera, quiet and relentless in moments of confrontation, tracks silently at night through the empty trading floor, a ghost invading a once healthy company.
…Spacey, after a long career of playing acidulous bad guys, gives a performance of surprising gentleness. As Rogers, sleepless, makes a speech to his traders in the morning, prepping them for the unsavory task ahead, Spacey’s body slumps and his facial muscles go slack. Will Rogers walk out on Tuld? In “Margin Call,” money insistently pushes its way into personal decisions; the movie is sympathetic to the executives’ plight but hard-nosed about their constant desire to elevate pay packages over principle.
No one ever says as much, but, of course, the toxic assets were assembled in the first place, and were sold well past the danger point, because the fees from doing so were high enough to extinguish caution. Until the last moment, the smugly reckless top executives don’t even comprehend the firm’s exposure; they need the fledglings, peering into computer models, to explain it to them (not an exaggeration of what happened at several firms). If Wall Street executives find themselves at a loss to understand what the protesters outside are getting at, they could do worse than watch this movie for a few clues.