Unlike Charles Ferguson’s furiously articulate documentary Inside Job, a scathing dismantling of the actions of bankers which led to the 2008 financial crash that made viewers’ fists itch and their blood boil, Margin Call is an examination of institutionalised greed and professional narcissism told from the point of view of the bankers.
Risk management exec Eric Dale (Stanley Tucci) is one of a number of casualties after a large cull at a Lehman Brothers-esque stock trading firm. Before he’s unceremoniously escorted from the building, he hands over a flash drive to Peter Sullivan (Zachary Quinto), a junior colleague, telling him to be careful. Intrigued, Sullivan does the work on the figures and works out something horrifying – that the current models used to project investments are worthless and the whole market is on the verge of implosion.
The news gradually filters through the ranks, and reaches the upper echelons of the company. An emergency meeting is called in the early hours of the morning and the senior management (Paul Betany, Kevin Spacey, Demi Moore, Simon Baker and a wonderfully cast Jeremy Irons) convene in the boardroom to decide what to do about the forthcoming financial haemorrhage.
Ex-Merrill Lynch employee JC Chandor’s script paints a convincingly authentic portrait of Wall Street. Deals are often struck in fast-talking, tense conversations between two or three people – there are no over-arching conspiracies, merely individual greed and self-preservation.
The taut script is held together by a fantastic ensemble cast. Everyone pulls their weight but special praise has to go to Paul Bettany as pragmatic and borderline sociopathic senior salesman Will Emerson, a man closer to lizard than he is human (a welcome return to form after a run of dismal sci-fi movies) and Kevin Spacey as Head of Sales Sam Baker.
Spacey delivers a nuanced performance – grieving for his dying dog while remaining unmoved by the cull of his colleagues but then attempting to draw a line in the sand against urbanely charismatic CEO John Tuld (a fantastic Jeremy Irons), who plots the demise of thousands while casually eating breakfast in a rooftop restaurant.
It never judges, never sermonises, and never provides excuses for the behaviour of its key players. What it does do is provide a good jumping off point to explore office politics, institutionalised corporate greed and humanises rather than demonises its characters. And it’s so well acted that it even manages to wring some pity out of these most wretched on individuals. This is the film Wall Street 2 should have been.