Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Margin Call

"When The Music's Over (...And the Band Plays On)"
"Momma, There's Wolves in the House"

Margin Call begins like The Company Men and Up in the Air—in the midst of a corporate slaughter—people being fired from jobs they've held a long time.  Cut-backs.  "Generous" severance.  Thanks for your service.  Security will escort you out.

Eric Dale (Stanley Tucci) listens to it all, a little stunned, but tentative.  "Uh, listen," he says in the middle of the administering of Last Rights, "I was working on something and I'm not finished yet."  Doesn't matter.  Go to your office.  Empty your desk.  Proprietary information.  Your losing your phone, e-mail, etc.  "No, really..." he says.

Doesn't matter.  He's out.  On the way to the elevator, he runs into two of his turks, Peter Sullivan (Zachary Quinto) and Seth Bregman (Penn Badgley).  "Am I safe?" asks Seth (as Seth is wont to do).  But Peter walks him to the elevator to tell him how much his mentorship meant to him. Dale cuts him off.  "I know. I was working on something.  They won't let me finish it," says Dale as he hands him a USB drive.  And as the elevator doors shut, he has just enough time to say "Be careful."


It's the "be careful" that gets everybody's attention.  "He said that?"

Sullivan begs off the traditional drinks for the battle survivors and takes a look at Dale's figures.  Then he sees something.  Digs, does some calculations and then stares at his projections screen.  Over the next twelve hours, the world will go to Hell and he's the only one who sees the gate.

Margin Call is a boardroom thriller about our recent financial crisis, but its played like a mystery story.  Everybody speaks in code.  The night is dark and no one is betraying secrets.  No one knows what's around the corner and everybody's looking behind them for the knife.  Written and directed by J.C. Chandor (Who? This is his first film and it is an impressive debut), it plays out like a conspiracy—it is—and if so much of it didn't anticipate the dawn, one would be tempted to call it a film noir; there is a palpable air of organized evil, built of greed and self-interest, that hangs over the film, for what is being planned is the crime of the century.

The cast is uniformly superb—how could it not be with the likes of Kevin Spacey, Jeremy Irons, Simon Baker, Paul Bettany, Demi Moore, and Tucci?—but those performances depend on the great dialog generated by Chandor and the way he presents what should be dry material as drama and intrigue.  These are gangsters in Gucci, cold-blooded, playing the long odds and the fast kill, but instead of "going to the mattresses" they are isolated in fancy cars and well-appointed high-rise board-rooms, their views of the world their actions are affecting armored by safety glass.  There isn't much soul-searching (their businesspeople, so why look in a dry hole?) about what devastation their actions will bring, except for the immediate future and what it will do "for business."  Even then, loyalty to the corporate mantra of "be first, be smarter or cheat" trumps conscience.  That would make a hell of a slogan wouldn't it?

If one could gripe (and there is little to gripe about), one could argue that, if anything, this reverse "Godfather"—where businesspeople are gangsters, rather than gangsters as businesspeople—is heavily romanticized.  There are no "Masters of the Universe" statements coming from these mortgage titans (as one heard from Wall Street bar-recordings on "This American Life," where these mavens crowed about deserving bonuses from bail-outs because "they're smarter than everybody else"), but, rather, short-term hedges about "dog-eat-dog" survival.  No cynical betting against failure schemes, but merely making the best out of a bad situation before everyone else does.  

As bad as Margin Call makes its protagonists, the truth is even worse—there were folks betting on things coming crashing down and profiting from it.  It doesn't take a rocket scientist to see that a fix was in and that analysts saw it coming, not, suddenly, seeing it and going "Garsh, this looks bad."  And the worst thing that's happened to these people is a little traffic congestion on Wall Street.

That is, if they're working at all.

Margin Call is a Full-Price Ticket.

1 comment:

Candice Frederick said...

wow, what an enticing review.