Thursday, December 13, 2012

The Quiet Death Of Rampant Capitalism: Margin Call

The Good: Great acting, Engaging plot, Moments of character, Mood
The Bad: Largely lacking in character development
The Basics: Margin Call traces an analyst’s discovery of a severe flaw at an investment bank through the early attempts to save the company at all costs.

It takes a lot to create a quiet, tense and engaging drama where almost nothing happens. It is hard to make one successful when it is about a group of people widely regarded as the enemy of the working class. Before tonight, the last film I saw that did that successfully was Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (reviewed here!). Tonight, the film that similarly engrossed me was Margin Call. I knew of Margin Call only from it popping up during award season last year and I picked it up from the library because I wanted something smart. It was exactly what I was looking for.

Margin Call is a financial drama. Margin Call is Wall Street (reviewed here!) without the charismatic villain. What it lacks in a memorable antagonist, it makes up for with realism and an incredible, largely male cast working at the top of their game. As an anti-capitalist, it is easy to fall in love with Margin Call.

The day a senior risk analyst is fired from the investment bank he works for, he hands off a flash drive with his last project to the only guy who seems to care, a junior analyst, Peter Sullivan. After the survivors of the round of firings go out to party, Peter stays and completes the work done by Eric Dale. Peter quickly discovers that the risk investments the firm has invested in are not holding their value. Realizing that the collapse of the investments is not imminent, but rather is in process (and has been for almost two weeks prior), Peter calls in his manager, Will Emerson.

Will, Seth, and their boss Sam Rogers quickly analyze the data and conclude that the numbers are valid. Calling the head of the company, John Tuld, in, the executive committee of the investment bank quickly determines the course of action: the next morning, the bank will try to sell off as many of the mortgages as they can and be the first out of the riskiest market. As the company scrambles to find and get Eric Dale back in the building, the people involved wrestle with the magnitude their decisions will have on the American and world economies.

Paired with Capitalism: A Love Story (reviewed here!), Margin Call American cinema seems willing to finally indict the institutions of capitalism in the United States. Both films point out the folly of the system in its disparities and acknowledge the human nature flaw that keeps it going: more than wanting to change the system, those who suffer the most at a result of capitalism want to simply become the ones who control it. It’s a dark and problematic flaw, but one that – largely – allows the corrupt system to remain intact. The 1% maintain control over the 99% because of the mass delusion among the majority that they might join the ranks of the 1%. Margin Call is a film that explores one “oh, shit!” moment of the 1%.

Blissfully, Margin Call is largely lacking in jargon. While a very telling and sharp drama, the recurring joke of Margin Call is that the higher up the executive chain Peter Sullivan brings his findings, the more simply the executives want him to explain things. As a result, viewers who are patient enough to sit through the horrified looks on the faces of Seth (Penn Badgley), Will Emerson (Paul Bettany), Sam Rogers (Kevin Spacey), and Jared Cohen (Simon Baker) before Jeremy Irons’s John Tuld enters the film to have Zachary Quinto’s Peter explain the problem sufficiently and in simple terms, will be rewarded with a full understanding of the scope of the impending financial disaster. For those who do not fully comprehend it, the film’s final moments, wherein Will’s phone calls are shared during the sell-off, make it perfectly clear.

Margin Call is like 12 Angry Men without the deeper character studies. Instead it is a plot-based film where a pretty amazing cast acting with complete credibility. Quinto, Bettany (it’s weird seeing him in a film where he isn’t shooting someone or punching them in the face!), Spacey, Irons, and Badgley all seem believable as financial managers. Quinto, whose character is actually a rocket scientist, absolutely sells the notion that he could be in risk analysis. Simon Baker is similarly good and Stanley Tucci, who plays Eric Dale, is his usual wonderful self. He has a way of taking a bit role and dominating every scene he has with it.

Kevin Spacey is similarly wonderful as Sam, the lone executive to initially take a real stand against the executive board’s plan. Ironically, his best performance is a bit of facial expression acting in one of the deleted scenes.

On DVD, Margin Call features two deleted scenes – which would have served to further humanize one character and the other that would have given Jeremy Irons a more obviously adversarial role in the piece -, two featurettes, a commentary track, and a photo gallery. They are pretty typical for this type of drama (it’s never one of the actors in a featurette who says, “I hated working on this film and I disagree with the premise!” so there are no real surprises here).

As financial times get tougher for the majority get tougher, perhaps our education should come in sharing a progression of movies. It is hard to imagine who would not be ready for revolt after watching, in close succession, Margin Call, Capitalism: A Love Story and V For Vendetta (reviewed here!).

For other works with Simon Baker, be sure to check out my reviews of:
The Devil Wears Prada
Something New
The Affair Of The Necklace
L.A. Confidential


For other film reviews, please check out my Movie Review Index Page for an organized listing of all the movie reviews I have written.

© 2012 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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