Based loosely on the sudden demise of Lehman Brothers and set over a 24-hour period, the writer and director J. C. Chandor’s Margin Call is a nuanced, intriguing look at the actions and events that led to the bank’s implosion and to the wider, global financial crisis. In 2008, the collapse of the sub-prime market had roiled Wall Street, forcing banks to cull employees in mass layoffs. Arriving at work as usual, Eric Dale (Stanley Tucci), a senior executive in the risk management department, is led into a fish bowel of a meeting room, where he is unceremoniously offered his redundancy package before being escorted from the building. But just as the elevator doors close, he sees one of his junior employees, Peter Sullivan (played by Zachary Quinto, also one of the film’s producers); Dale hands him a memory stick with a request to look at his unfinished work, and a more ominous warning to be careful.
The research contained on the memory stick proves to be lethal to the bank’s fortunes. By the time that the junior analyst has convinced his superiors that the data is correct, leading to a series of emergency midnight-hour meetings, the over-leveraged, under-capitalised bank is already on its knees - it’s only a question of when the rest of the world finds out. Gliding through the neon-lit Manhattan streets in the back of a limo with another analyst, Seth Bregman (Penn Badgley), Sullivan (originally a scientist and easily smarter than his superiors) marvels at the blissfully oblivious crowds.
Audiences looking for an anti-capitalist polemic will be disappointed. While the arrogance of the men at the very top is breathtaking, the director tries hard to portray his characters as realistically as possible (mostly avoiding the slick glamour that usually stands in for Wall Street), and sometimes even sympathetically - something that will no doubt draw criticism from some of the banker-bashing public. The first-time director has pulled together an impressive ensemble cast, who serve as a microcosm for the breadth of personalities that populate the financial world. Penn Badgley captures the cockiness of the junior analyst who’s only in it for the money, constantly speculating about what the senior staff are paid; he later ends up crying painfully in a toilet stall when he realises that his career is already over, his ambitions shattered. Demi Moore is surprisingly well cast as the very serious, stern and professional lone woman, who is sacrificed to protect the men higher up the food chain. Jeremy Irons is pitch-perfect as the assured, aloof CEO John Tuld, whose misplaced self-belief has blinded him to his own imminent end, as he brings down his bank by insisting that they flood the markets with their toxic assets.
Chandor has done an excellent job keeping the film accessible without dumbing down, offering insights into the culture that caused the collapse while putting a human face on some of the players (there is no shortage of reviews on the internet criticising the film for exactly this). The often repeated description of the film as a ‘financial thriller’ is pretty close to the mark - it’s a smart, entertaining film, and an impressive debut from the director.