The Observer, Sun 8 Jan 2012
The confident cinematic debut of writer-director JC Chandor, an experienced maker of commercials, Margin Call is the best fictional treatment of the current economic crisis. It’s altogether superior to Oliver Stone’s hollow Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps and in the same class as Charles Ferguson’s revealing, piercingly intelligent documentary Inside Job. In fact, it stands up to comparison with the 1992 film of David Mamet’s magnificently squalid play Glengarry Glen Ross, which in many ways it resembles, not least in featuring a peerless ensemble cast that includes Kevin Spacey. Glengarry Glen Ross takes place during a couple of days in a seedy provincial branch of a national company where desperate salesmen peddle worthless real estate. Margin Call, also set over some 36 hours or so, initially appears to be located in an altogether more honourable and affluent place, the Manhattan headquarters of a respected investment bank. But the year is 2008, the sub-prime crisis is under way and except for their Hugo Boss and Armani suits and the stainless steel and plate glass skyscraper they work in, there’s little to distinguish the smooth operators earning $1m bonuses on Wall Street from the grifters in Glengarry Glen Ross.
The movie is as intriguing and button-holing as a first-rate thriller and starts with the company’s latest round of brutal firings. One of the victims, veteran risk analyst Eric Dale (Stanley Tucci), hands over a file on which he’s working to new employee Peter Sullivan (Zachary Quinto), a 29-year-old former rocket scientist now doing much the same job for a rather larger salary at the bank. What Sullivan finds in the file is a forecast of the company’s future that makes a stick of dynamite look like a two-penny firecracker. The company has been buying and passing on worthless packages of mortgages, and it is on the brink of the biggest bank collapse of all time. As night falls, word passes up through the hierarchy from Sullivan to his slick British superior Will Emerson (Paul Bettany) and on to the head of sales Sam Rogers (Kevin Spacey), a basically decent middle-aged man whose main current problem is that his much-loved dog is dying of cancer. Rogers rushes back to the office to consult his boss, the cool ruthless 43-year-old Jared Cohen (Simon Baker). Not surprisingly they call in the almost God-like CEO, John Tuld (Jeremy Irons), who arrives by helicopter at midnight. His name is not entirely dissimilar to that of Richard Fuld, the infamous CEO of Lehman Brothers, one of the chief targets of Ferguson’s Inside Job.
At this point the grey areas get darker, the ironic euphemisms become coated with free-floating obscenities, scapegoats find themselves staked out, the rich protect their backs and get richer, and the public gets screwed. Chandor’s language is as precise and convincing as Mamet’s, the realism never slips into cheap cynicism and, as Jean Renoir says in La Règle du jeu: “The awful thing is this. Everyone has his reasons.”