Margin Call is one of the best films of the year so far.
The film is about information. It is about knowledge, about what we think we know, what we don't know, and to put it Rumsfeldianly, what we don't know that we don't know.
The writing and directing fiction feature debut of J. C. Chandor, Margin Call takes place in the course of 24 hours one night in 2008 in the Manhattan offices of a multinational corporation whose investment wing this untitled entity represents.1 The morning begins with mass firings, halving the trading floor of the business. As a departing gift, the risk analysis manager (Stanley Tucci) gives a tiny USB drive to one of his underlings, Peter Sullivan (TV's Zachary Quinto, also one of the producers). Sullivan stays late while other survivors are out partying. Looking at the material on the drive, he figures out that the firm has bet on certain financial "instruments," as they are called, with a formula that puts the business as a whole in a precarious position. The result is that if the value of the junk loans they are selling decreases by a certain margin, the whole firm loses all its money and then some. Sullivan tells his boss (Paul Bettany), who summons his boss, Sam Rogers (Kevin Spacey), a divorced father grieving for the death of his pet dog, who tells his boss (TV's Simon Baker, reuniting with his L. A. Confidential co-star), who finally summons the big cheese, Jeremy Irons, playing a certain John Tuld.2 In light of this disastrous information, Tuld must make a drastic decision and compel his employees to implement it. Their reactions to this mandate are a cross section of moral responses to the financial crisis we still endure.
Everyone in the film wants to know something, or thinks that they know something, or are taken by surprise by things they didn't know. When Sullivan bids farewell to his boss, he tries to express something emotional to him, but his mentor cuts him off by saying, "I know." Throughout the night, Sullivan's co-worker (Penn Badgley) keeps wondering aloud what people make, from the strippers they watch to the levels of salary that his overseers take in. Supposed financial experts keep telling their assistants to keep it simple, betraying the fact that even they really don't know how to do their jobs. In one of the film's already famous, but most clichéd moments, Sullivan looks out at the Manhattan crowds on the streets and ponders what is about to happen to them as the economy collapses.3 It's one of the film's few missteps. Overall, Margin Call evokes some of the great '70s paranoia and politics films that people always claim to love but never go to see when they are revived in modern works, such as the films of George Clooney or Steven Soderbergh, to name two descendants of the style. There is a Pakula-like style to the film, and not just because it is about another financial crisis like Pakula's lesser work, Rollover.
Margin Call benefits from a terrific cast that also includes Demi Moore, Mary McDonnell, and Aasif Mandvi. It's closest analog is to the Mamet adaptation Glengarry Glenross (the Spacey connection), but unlike Mamet's works there are gradations of emotional attitudes among the characters and they are not all cutthroats.4 The film is probably too slowly paced and at times hard to follow for some (that knowledge problem again), but for those with the patience Margin Call falls into line with that small group of truly adult films that includes Shattered Glass, Breach, The Good Shepherd, and Michael Clayton.
1 The firm is passed on Lehman Brothers, and Mr. Chandor's father apparently worked for Merrill Lynch.
2 "Tuld" = "Fuld" but with some Murdoch thrown in for pan-malevolent measure.
3 Being "too big to fail," Sullivan's firm will imperil all the other firms on Wall Street, among other disasters.
4 In fact the film has been maligned in some quarters for going easy on the traders.