“Margin Call” | a film review by Gary Chew
“Margin Call” suggests that it not only holds in Washington, DC that, if you want a friend, maybe you should get a dog. Another venue at which that might work well is New York City, especially down along (at this writing) Occupied Wall Street.
Sam Rogers, a principal character in “Margin Call” (Kevin Spacey), has a dog for his best friend. You see just how close a friend Sam is with his dog in the last scene of this first movie by J. C. Chandor, who also cleanly wrote the crisp, smart script. Chandor’s father once worked for Merrill Lynch.
“Margin Call” is a fictionalized account of what precipitated the meltdowns of several securities firms in September 2008. There is a familiar ring to names like Merrill Lynch, Bear Stearns, Lehman Brothers, AIG and so on, I think.
In fact, the screenplay hints at this event by naming Jeremy Irons’ character with a word that melds the last names of two real life New York investment bankers. The real Mr. Thain and Mr. Fuld, please meet the fictional head banker gentleman in “Margin Call.” Shake hands with Mr. Tuld.”
John Tuld’s doing-business motto is, “To win: the choices are, be first, be smart or cheat.” In another moment of candor, Mr. Tuld has this to say about Yankee dollars and other currencies: “It’s just money, it’s all made up.”
But the melting-down to take place in 24 hours time that “Margin Call” covers isn’t made up at all. It was and is still quite real, and, in the movie, will soon be taking its toll…first on the little guys, then working its way upward to however far, what money the firm will have left, keeps the ones near and at the top, on top.
One of the little guys in the office, Peter, is played by Zachary Quinto (Star Trek‘s new, younger Spock). Peter tallies the numbers on an under-the-radar project that, his boss, Eric (Stanley Tucci) is working on… just when (out of the blue) Eric, the boss, gets sacked.
Eric advises caution for Peter, who is a former rocket scientist — really. (Peter likes the money on Wall Street better than what he earned at the launch pad.) Eric says, “Be careful, Peter!” Which translates more specifically into, “Watch out, Peter, when checking out these rather rattling figures. Eric is afraid the numbers indicate the firm is heading into Tank Time at the old Twilight Zone.”
Peter’s boss hasn’t had time enough to ascertain what the chances are for such an awful event; all the pieces of the puzzle are yet to be found. Peter does find that Eric is on to something not good but, whoa, by then, Security has already escorted Eric from the place and disconnected his communications devices.
Business is business.
With “wagons”quickly circled, Mr. Tuld, Sam and Peter take an urgent, through-the-night, high-level meeting with several other of the firm’s A-listers They include Sarah (Demi Moore), an upper-level cruncher of numbers who, earlier, had sounded warnings to the brass that all is not serendipitous in Mortgage Money Land. Her message goes something like this: selling something that has no value will finally come back to bite you.
Besides Tuld, another seemingly unaffected upper echelon manager named Jared moves closer to “Margin Call’s” center stage in the predawn, highly-placed strategy scenes. Simon Baker*, CBS TV’s “The Mentalist,” does that part.
As meltdown’s temperatures rise, and the players draw closer to personal choices about what to do, Baker gets off one of his best lines, “What is right takes on multiple interpretations.” Ya, think?
Baker’s turn as Jared gives off reminiscent sparks Michael Douglas spawned doing Gordon Gecko. But Baker’s character is much less histrionic. In fact, despite the heat of “Margin Call’s” topic, the film is nearly without histrionics. It’s quiet, deliberate, clearly messaged, even business-like, although extended chatter goes on a good deal about the statistics that loom on the computer monitors of major players.
And… no, you’re wrong. The film is not boring or dull. It will nail your attention with help from non-distracting, low-key, but just right music embellishing the tension.
Showing how quickly these people are at thinking in just numbers, Tucci has a wonderful off-topic speech about how building a bridge saved awesome quantities of years of not having to live in a moving vehicle by many people, over the years, who drive back and forth to work everyday. I’m glad that Chandor put those lines in the script. I’ve always wondered just how fast smart people can run accurate figures in their heads. Tucci’s Eric falls into the speed-of-light niche crunching them.
“Margin Call’s” calm in the middle of a perfect financial storm lends even more gravity to the narrative. But what’s even smarter about the movie: salesmen in it aren’t painted as really bad; but secular, smart, ambitious and longing to grab their big piece of the American Pie. Not always do such motives produce the grim results seen in this film.
I suggest another way, though, to describe “Margin Call” would be recalling the written-voice of Arthur Miller, then retitling the film: “Death of Not Just One, But Many Salesmen — by Their Own Hand.”