A Bad Day on The Street
The barely-fictionalized film, “Margin Call,” about the collapse, in a single day and night, of the entire financial industry, starts as just an ordinary day in a high-profile investment bank. Three quarters of a floor of analysts have just been laid off, hustled by guards out the door, these hapless persons bearing nothing more than their family photos in cardboard boxes. Eric Dale (Stanley Tucci), with 19 years on the job, is one of those axed. He points out, mildly, that cutting the people who assess risk might not be the most strategically wise decision and argues that he’s working on something important. His slightly manic, Nicorette-chomping boss Will (Paul Bettany) waves him off. On his way to the elevator, Dale hands a memory stick to his young protege, Peter Sullivan (Zachary Quinto), and urges him to delve into it, but to “be careful.” Late that night, staring at his computer screen, Sullivan realizes the import of what he’s looking at, and his face (framed by brows that look like they were drawn on with a Sharpie) looks no less horrified than if he’d just noticed an asteroid about to hit Earth, or zombies risen from all the graves in Manhattan — yes, in some ways, this is a horror movie. Sullivan quickly hauls Will back from a bar and explains what the data and graphs mean. Basically, the firm has so much invested in financial instruments based on mortgage- backed securities, that if the value of them drops much more than it has already, the company will go under, and that’s likely to happen any minute. Will calls his boss, Sam Rogers (marvelously played by Kevin Spacey), who calls his boss, Jared Cohen (an oily Simon Baker), and before long the top dog, John Tuld (Jeremy Irons), is arriving by helicopter for a 2 a.m. emergency strategy session. The film, written and directed by first-timer J. C. Chandor, is tightly written, darkly funny and does a mostly good job explaining the financial mumbo-jumbo. (Why the bank will go under is clear. Why the whole world will come to an end — one character looks out on Manhattan and says “they have no idea what’s about to hit them” — is less so.) The terrific cast includes Demi Moore as the head of risk assessment who quickly sees that she will have to take the fall for the mess the company is in (the scene where Irons delivers the news to her is chilling). Penn Badgley, as another lean and hungry young up-and-comer, muses about how much money everyone in the firm makes and how they spend it, and is concerned only about whether he’ll lose his job or not. In fact that’s all most of the players are worried about in the end: will they lose their jobs, and if so, will their options be worth anything? The only one who seems to care about the wider impact of the impending collapse is Spacey’s character, a saggy-jowled company man. He has two great speeches that bookend the movie: at the start, when the layoffs have sheared the ranks, he delivers a low-key pep talk, telling the assembled survivors that this is how it works on Wall Street: they are still there because they’re better, and this is their opportunity to rise up and take their bosses’ now-vacant chairs. He seems to believe it, too. But once he’s realized that Tuld’s strategy — to sell off the toxic assets so fast the market won’t know what’s hit it until too late — will ruin the company’s reputation forever, and irreparably harm the market, he grows a conscience. His second speech, after the long night has ended and the trading day is about to begin, is a brilliant piece of acting. Spacey shows both the seasoned salesman motivating his forces, and the spiritual death behind the facade. These people love what they do. They love New York. They love the money, the pace, the game. When it all comes crashing down they have no idea what to do other than keep playing, harder and faster. “Margin Call” sheds a surprising amount of light on the people, the rules and the culture that have invisibly shaped our world.“Margin Call” is rated R for language.It is playing at the Triplex Cinema in Great Barrington,MA, and elsewhere.