"Margin Call" takes ripped-from-the-headlines events and dramatizes them for all they're worth. Which turns out to be quite a lot.
Starring a top cast including Kevin Spacey, Jeremy Irons, Stanley Tucci and Paul Bettany, "Margin Call" returns us to where previous films, including the Oscar-winning documentary "Inside Job" and the HBO drama "Too Big to Fail," have gone before: the opening days of 2008's global financial crisis. But this time, it's different.
It's different because this confident, crisply made piece of work does an expert job of bringing us inside the inner sanctum of a top Wall Street investment bank in extremis, giving us a convincing and coolly dramatic portrait of what it must have been like when titans trembled.
That sharp sense of authenticity was honestly earned, courtesy of the experience of writer-director J.C. Chandor's father, who was an executive for Merrill Lynch for close to 40 years. That familiarity enabled his son to write clipped, to-the-point dialogue that sounds like talk the way it is talked when doors are closed and reporters are far away.
It was Chandor's script, filled with tart exchanges and involving situations that explore unexpected areas of corporate psychology and human behavior, that attracted that high-powered cast, which also includes "The Mentalist's" Simon Baker, Zachary Quinto (Spock in "Star Trek") and Demi Moore.
Chandor's work as a director maximizes the impact of his actors. Though "Margin Call" is his first dramatic feature, he's had 15 years of experience in commercials and documentaries. That's enough for him to know precisely how he wanted his script to be played, and that is quietly.
"Margin Call" is effective because its vivid dialogue is delivered with a restraint that never pushes too hard. This is playing hardball without raising your voice, evenly saying, "I don't think that would be a good idea," instead of losing your grip. It's as if each character is a well-dressed coiled spring, kept from exploding only by the tensile strength of fashionable suspenders.
Shot by Frank DeMarco and set almost entirely in the unnamed firm's shadowy office high in a Manhattan spire, "Margin Call's" sense of brooding tension comes from its confined space, from the gloom of events taking place during the wee hours of a long night of the soul, and from an effective score by Nathan Larson.
The film's title comes from a stock market term referring to a demand for money when something bought with borrowed funds has ruinously decreased in value, which pretty much describes the crux of the situation the firm finds itself in. "Margin Call" has a fondness for business jargon in its dialogue, but even if the specific financial details being discussed are sometimes unclear, the thrust of events is never in doubt.
"Margin Call" opens as a team from human resources is arriving to terminate 80% of the employees on the floor. Everyone in the firm thinks -- erroneously, as it turns out -- that this will be the worst part of their day.
Among those let go is Eric Dale (Tucci), unceremoniously ousted from his position as a risk analyst. As he is being escorted to the elevator, Dale hands a flash drive to his assistant Peter Sullivan, tells him to look at the material and, as the doors close, simply says, "Be careful."
Be careful indeed. Effectively played by Quinto (who is also one of the film's producers), Sullivan stays late to consider the data, and once he looks it over quickly realizes what the warning was about: The firm is so over-committed to risky loans that it pretty much owes more money than it's worth.
That heart of "Margin Call" is watching what happens as that ruinous information works its way up the corporate food chain in the dead of night, first to Will Emerson (a cool Bettany) and then to his boss Sam Rogers (Spacey, doing some of his best work), the head of the trading team who is fiercely loyal to the firm's 107-year-old tradition.
Finally, Chief Executive John Tuld gets involved. Gorgeously played by Irons, this is a man who marries genuine personal charm ("Speak to me as you might a small child," he tells a worried Sullivan) with complete and unhesitating ruthlessness.
Together, these men must decide how the firm will respond to looming disaster, how far they will go and at what cost to the very institution they are trying to save. All kinds of factors come into play, from the moral to the mercenary, and even if you think you know all there is to know about how Wall Street plays its games, "Margin Call" will open your eyes.
MPAA rating: R for language
Running time: 1 hour,
Playing: In general release