The 2008 financial collapse was so large in scale, and so unfathomable to most, that it practically begged for Hollywood’s blustery mythmaking. It got it, too, in this year’s HBO movie Too Big to Fail, an apocalypse-with-suits telling of the post-crisis bailout talks that, for a time, seemed to place the weight of the world on the shoulders of glorified swindlers.
Margin Call, written and directed by J.C. Chandor, thankfully resists the urge to go big as it depicts the very moment when the owner of a fictional securities firm, Master of the Universe John Tuld (the perfectly snakey Jeremy Irons), realizes the error of his firm’s ways – namely, the now-all-too-familiar derivatives shell game – too late.
The film stars Stanley Tucci as a risk-management worker who, on the day he’s downsized, passes on personal research to a rising underling (Zachary Quinto) that indicates the firm’s path leads to a total meltdown, not only of the company but possibly of a large portion of the global economy.
Quinto’s Peter Sullivan takes his findings quickly up the corporate ladder, and a late-night jam session is called. Kevin Spacey’s Sam Rogers, the divorced, ethically conflicted sales-floor boss preoccupied by the impending death of his dog, clashes with Irons, his second-in-command Will (Paul Bettany, thankfully not playing a priest for once) and numbers lady Sarah (Demi Moore) as they not only grapple with whether Sullivan’s assessment is accurate, but who will take the fall.
It turns out, they all will, as will we. Coincidentally, I saw this claustrophobic drama during a week when I spent hours in the lobby of my local IRS office, clearing up a matter I understood about as well as derivatives (which is to say, not at all). My eyes were forcibly glued to CNN, which analyzed a Republican presidential nomination debate utilizing a “Truth-O-Meter,” as I avoided the harsh gaze of U.S. Secretary of the Treasury Timothy Geithner, whose framed photo stared down at the construction workers and film critics awaiting their turn.
Margin Call’s brilliance lies in its evocation of the same feeling: Despite its players’ status as instruments of doom, most of them are just as clueless as everyone else. They’re forced to sit down and await their fate while cleaning ladies go about their after-hours business. Chandor’s goal, setting aside the tedious “This is going to change everything” lines, is not to ask for sympathy for the devil, but to reassure the audience that this isn’t about the evils of bankers or traders, as a whole; they’re pawns in a larger game, one controlled by shockingly few people.
As dawn breaks and the reality of this skeleton crew’s fate sets in, the film finds itself in a bizarre stratosphere where the air is thin, ties are disheveled and truth prepares to take a back seat to last-minute spin.
What was once oddly self-contained reveals itself as ultimately human – as visceral and confusing as any IRS office.