Here’s a movie that missed its moment. Margin Call is a melodrama built around the 2008 financial crisis, featuring a fictionalized version of Lehman Bros. run by men (mostly) who attempt to avert their company’s implosion by selling billions in toxic investments to their best clients. It’s well written, well acted, and completely laughable in a post-post-Occupy Wall Street world. That serious movie critics are giving this dreck the time of day only goes to illustrate how out of touch the A.O. Scotts of the world are with reality.
Margin Call begins with a corporate firing squad (think Clooney in Up In The Air) being called into a Wall Street trading office to fire a large chunk of the staff. Stanley Tucci plays one of the decapitated, a risk management type who has stumbled onto a massive vulnerability in the firm’s liquidity but is unable to make the numbers work before being laid off. As he’s being escorted out the door, Tucci’s character hands off a thumb drive to an underling (well played by Star Trek’s Zachary Quinto) who digs into the data and finishes the work. It turns out the firm is screwed, the sky is falling and the world is coming to an end — pretty much all at once.
Quinto tells his immediate supervisor (Paul Bettany, terrific as always), who tells his supervisor (Kevin Spacey, doing Oscar-caliber work) who passes the message up the chain of command. Before long, they’re all in a late night meeting with the CEO (Jeremy Irons) discussing how to keep the firm alive. A last-ditch plan is hatched: Sell all the toxic assets as fast as possible, before the clients catch on and realize that they are buying garbage. Spacey in particular has trouble with this. If you screw all your clients today, exactly who will you do business with tomorrow?
Margin Call plays like a thriller, with characters under intense pressure making horrifying decisions in an effort to save themselves. With all the star power and the excellent performances, it’s easy to forget that the people portrayed in Margin Call are scum. And by telescoping the events that lead to the crisis down from years (Goldman Sachs knew the credit default swaps market was in trouble more than a year ahead of Oct. 2008 and profited hugely by essentially setting their best customers on fire) to a day or two, the movie creates a false impression of what actually occurred, then compounds the error by attempting to engender sympathy for the bankers and CEOs who destroyed the global economy.
You might buy that, but I sure don’t. Fuck these people. I have zero sympathy for rich speculators and hedge fund managers who bankrupted school districts and civil servant unions and your grandpa’s pension fund while socking away billions for themselves. They should all be in jail — or worse. Despite what Margin Call would have you believe, these Masters of the Universe knew exactly what they were doing well ahead of time, they knew it was wrong, and they did it anyway. Our government may be so sold out and ball-less that it turns a blind eye, but an angry public has had enough. Enter the protesters to Zuccotti Park.
Had Margin Call come out a year or more ago — before The Big Short and Inside Job laid bare the largest con of our lifetimes — I think I would have enjoyed it more. In 2011, when it’s common knowledge that those portrayed in the film are criminals who live beyond the law, and Americans of all stripe have taken to the streets in protest of America’s financial lawlessness, this movie looks woefully silly and out of touch. And no amount of good acting can fix that.