Sympathy for the devils
Starring Kevin Spacey, Paul Bettany, Jeremy Irons, Zachary Quinto, Penn Badgley, Simon Baker, Demi Moore, Stanley Tucci. 97 minutes, rated M (offensive language). Showing at Embassy, Light House Petone, Penthouse cinemas.
Iwas in the United States in September 2008 when Wall Street – and the entire US economy – was brought to its knees.
Though it was all over the news, I struggled to comprehend the gravity of the situation. Economics has never been my strong subject. If someone had told me Lehman Brothers was a menswear store I would have believed them and what was all this about leverage ratios, hedge funds and subprime mortgages?
A lot of it remains numeral soup to me but I’ll be damned if rookie film-maker J C Chandor hasn’t made a compelling human drama out of all those charts and indexes.
Margin Call takes us inside one of Wall St’s steel and glass towers on the eve of destruction, as a finance company realises the party is over and hatches a plan
Wall St broker Sam Rogers’ (Kevin Spacey) company loyalty and integrity is tested when he is ordered to trade assets they know to be worthless to avoid bankruptcy. to save itself.
Though talk- heavy and set almost entirely in an office building – the closest thing to an action scene is a broker driving his convertible out of the underground – this picture is totally enthralling.
Chandor, whose father worked 25 years for Merrill Lynch, has assembled a cracking ensemble cast and written complex, engaging characters who we despise one moment but empathise with the next.
Whereas Curtis Hanson’s solid HBO offering Too Big To Fail depicted the fallout and bail outs mostly from the political perspective, Margin Call puts a human face to the often demonised bankers, brokers and analysts. For the most part they are not bad people, but they are a cog in a machine that rewards ruthlessness and amoral behaviour.
A victim of downsizing, risk alienist Eric Dale (Stanley Tucci) passes his final piece of work to colleague Peter Sullivan (Zachary Quinto) before being escorted from the building. Peter finishes the calculation and learns the volatility of the market has left the company holding too many toxic assets. Bankruptcy beckons.
The revelation filters up the food chain to Peter Bettany’s cocky team leader, Kevin Spacey’s seasoned company man, Simon Baker and Demi Moore’s ambitious executive team and head honcho John Tuld, played by Jeremy Irons – the embodiment of smug opulence.
Margin Call is an extremely affecting morality tale. As fascinating as it is to watch the firm clamour for survival like a drowning man – desperate to stay afloat no matter who else is pushed under – it’s the moral crises faced by the individual characters that really pack a wallop.
As characters reflect on the industry they serve, some struggle to find integrity in what they do, while others find ways to rationalise their status and hunger for more, more, more.