As happens occasionally at the Wilma, the screening of Margin Call was briefly interrupted in the middle when the reel either slipped or had to be replaced. For about a minute or so the dozen of us in the theater waited patiently in the dark, until a woman in the back broke the silence, blurting out, "Well, we already know how it ends."
This is, of course, correct. Though it may be a fictionalized account about the beginnings of the 2008 financial crisis, Margin Call is based on the very real truths that got us into the mess in which we flounder today: namely, ignorance, irrational confidence, stupidity and, above all, greed. And even though this film follows an unnamed multi-national investment firm over the course of just 35 or so hours, we already know about the stock crashes, the bank bailouts, the recession and the unemployment that are to come. Margin Call is a prologue to the great collapse, and if you can stomach that, the film is as gripping as the best thrillers out there.
If you want big-picture explanations for the financial crisis, I suggest you start with the wonderful 2010 documentary Inside Job or read Michael Lewis's definitive book on the subject, The Big Short. That's no criticism of Margin Call, which is more of a vignette, showing in crisp fashion how Zero Hour of the crisis may have looked to the stockbrokers, traders, risk managers and executives on the inside of a Wall Street mega-firm. It does so with an astonishingly tight narrative—there isn't a subpar scene until the very end, when the film frantically searches for an ending in a crisis that is just beginning. It helps that the film is perfectly cast, from the 23-year-old junior analyst Seth (Penn Badgley) all the way to billionaire CEO John Tuld (Jeremy Irons). Margin Call may piss you off, but it will not bore you.
Eric Dale (Stanley Tucci) plays one of those risk managers who suspects that the firm may have over-leveraged itself to the point of no return as it bought and sold billions of dollars of bundled junk mortgages. When we meet him, Eric is of course getting canned, along with 80 percent of the trading floor, in an ominous sign that the higher-ups may be trying to rid themselves of excess baggage. Before he's escorted away, Eric hands a USB drive to Peter Sullivan (Zachary Quinto), a 28-year-old analyst in his department. "Take a look at this," he says, "but be careful."
Sullivan, it should be noted, has a Ph.D. in physics—he's a rocket scientist working in an investment bank, freely admitting that he is doing so for the money. He understands the problems that Dale suspected; their firm isn't just approaching a financial precipice—it has already jumped off. He alerts his bosses—Sam (Kevin Spacey), who runs the trading floor and has worked 34 years at the firm, and Will (Paul Bettany), a younger manager who makes $2.5 million per year and spends nearly all of it. Both are caught off guard by Sullivan's findings, and so begins a series of late-night emergency meetings that culminate with the arrival of the CEO via helicopter.
It's during these meetings when we are to believe the domino is pushed, so to speak. Should the company sell off their entire portfolio of mortgage-backed securities, knowing that such a move will cause chaos in the markets and destroy its client relationships? Irons is wonderful as the ruthless head honcho. He may not understand the technical reasons for the firm's problems—the scene where Sullivan describes the imminent collapse to him is darkly hilarious—but he is a self-preservationist above all. "If you're the first out of the door, that's not panicking" he says with a sly grin. And with that the decision is made.
The pace of Margin Call can be dizzying. From the moment Dale is fired to the opening bell the following day, there is little rest for any of the main characters. Decisions that will alter the world's financial system are made in less time than it takes to write this review. And yet this is still a strangely poignant film, in large part due to Spacey. Sam is loyal to a fault to the firm that has employed him for three decades—a fact he brings up repeatedly—but that doesn't mean he isn't hesitant to lead his employees to their professional deaths. Like most of the characters in Margin Call, Sam's moral compass spins in all directions. But with seven-figure bonuses promised to every trader for a day's work .... Well, you already know where this path ends. Margin Call continues at the Wilma Theatre.