‘Margin Call’ (2011) review: Numbers don’t lie, even when people do

‘Margin Call’ a fantastic, humanizing look into financial crisis

Far too many people are far too familiar with the 2008 financial crisis. And while some blame must be attributed, far too many regular, everyday bankers and brokers have been demonized for something they, in all reality, had very little to do with.

Here in lies the brilliance of J. C. Chandor’s “Margin Call”: The film, with a startling brutal honesty, in equal measures seeks to humanize the crisis’ instigators while refusing to moralize the action they took. Actions that were seeped in greed and myopia, actions that caused a great deal of harm to a great deal of people. It’s both damning and enlightening because it’s not taking sides so much as explaining a point of view.

Enlightening because, when you finish the film, you don’t feel furious about the crimes just committed. Instead, you harbor a confusing mix of disgust and dread, confusion and pity. You know you should feel differently, but that’s the beauty of steely logic: It’s hard to outsmart it. And that is what’s so damning: You can’t blame them for what transpires, even if you disagree.

A drama of whispered secrets and words unspoken, “Margin Call,” Chandor’s first feature film, will you leave in you awe. The film rarely leaves the Manhattan offices of the fictional investment bank (loosely modeled on Lehman Brothers). It’s limited to 24 hours, during which phone calls, meetings and economy-destroying action happen with rapid precision and clarity.

“Margin Call” also has the feeling of a horror movie, and it has little to do with the dramatic tension set up by the stellar cast. Instead, it comes thanks in large part to the sense of forewarning, a disturbing knowledge already possessed by the viewer. You know what happens; you’ll just waiting to figure out how and, more importantly, why.

The problem is, in the movie, as in real life, finding the villain can prove illusive. A young risk analyst, Peter Sullivan (Zachary Quinto), more or less comes across as the hero of the story, if only because he’s the one who stumbles across the devastating information hiding away in the company’s mathematical model. It seems volatility in the market is threatening the stability of the mortgage-based securities the company has been peddling, and the resulting losses likely will destroy the bank and take trillions of dollars with it. (Which, of course, pretty much happened.)

Again, this is part of the beauty of “Margin Call.” What director Chandor sets out to do isn’t to explain the history we already know, but rather to take a look into the psyche of those involved, of those who made those fateful decisions early in the crisis.

Peter alerts his shallow co-worker Seth Bregman (Penn Badgley) and their supervisor, Will Emerson (Paul Bettany), who then informs his boss, Sam Rogers (a great Kevin Spacey), who then takes the information even higher up the corporate ladder. The only woman in the star-studded main cast, Demi Moore, plays Sarah Robertson, a manager who seems to have promoted the ill-fated securities sales while ignoring expressed warnings from others. At the end of the hierarchy is John Tuld (Jeremy Irons), an A-Z type of boss who simply sees an end result.

The funny thing is, with all these power suits running around, no one seems to know what the hell the firm does. Every manager from Will to Sam’s boss, Jared Cohen (Simon Baker), up says something around the lines of, “Speak to me in plain English; I don’t get this stuff.” And of course, the only manager who does know his worth in salt, Eric Dale (Stanley Tucci), has just been let go. (In typical corporate logic, the sensitive nature of his job resulted in his work cellphone being shut off, so no one can find him when he is need most.)

But, as we all know, nothing can really be done. The speed with which the damage envelops everything around it is truly breathtaking. But so is the way the firm does damage control. Someone must take the blame, and a contingency plan must be established. Apparently, there is no other option, a line repeated over and over again.

“Margin Call” may not leave a warm, fuzzy feeling toward bankers and the like in your stomach, but you may be more able to sympathize without forgiving or forgetting the damage they wrought.

Five moneyed stars out of five, and a critic’s pick.

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