When the catastrophe on Wall Street began to unfold a few years back, I read and reread newspaper articles about it, trying to understand it. Much of what I knew about finance I'd learned from an old Leave It To Beaver episode in which Ward tries to get the boys into the stock market. So I had some catching up to do.
But my task was hopeless. Credit default swaps? Mortgage-backed securities? Collateralized debt obligations? Tranches? The accounts seemed to be written in an imaginary language. But there was nothing imaginary about the meltdown, and we're still feeling its effects.
In the superb drama Margin Call, about a Wall Street firm that's about to collapse, characters speak in jargon so incomprehensible that even the steely head of the firm, Tuld (Jeremy Irons), needs a translation. Speak to me like I'm a golden retriever, he says to someone trying to explain the mounting difficulties.
For the purposes of movie-going, the specifics aren't important. It's enough to know that the film is inspired by the recent unpleasantness; there's mention of mortgages and, yes, tranches. Margin Call doesn't bother trying to explain the financial crisis that has unleashed so much misery, and that is to its credit. Movies aren't good for conveying concepts so dense and multifaceted. The Oscar-winning documentary Inside Job tried to explain the crisis and tended to get lost in the details. Margin Call focuses narrowly on a small group of panicked financial workers, and the effect is illuminating and queasily entertaining.
Margin Call begins with layoffs - grimly familiar scenes of employees being sacked by courteous but terse functionaries, then leaving with hurriedly packed boxes. One victim is Eric (Stanley Tucci), from the risk management department. I'm working on something important, he keeps saying. It's not your problem anymore, he's told. As elevator doors close on him, Eric desperately hands a flash drive to Peter (Zachary Quinto), a junior employee.
Working on Eric's model, Peter makes an alarming discovery: The firm holds bad assets valued at more than its worth. It is on the verge of going under. He alerts his boss, intense Will (Paul Bettany), who alerts his boss, unhappy Sam (Kevin Spacey), a company veteran of almost 40 years. In his neat suspenders, Sam seems to represent yesterday's Waspy Wall Street, not the wonky Wall Street of today.
Meetings take place all night. Ruthless Jared (Simon Baker, from television's The Mentalist) hands out blame. Alarmed Sarah (Demi Moore) deflects it. Smiling coldly, Tuld ponders a plan of action that would unleash global mayhem.
Margin Call feels like one of those great Golden Age of Television dramas written by Rod Serling or Paddy Chayefsky. Like Serling's Patterns, it's a morality play with a corporate setting. First-time feature writer and director J.C. Chandor artfully limits the scope of the action, which mainly unfolds in a New York office over the course of about 24 hours.
Using a simple but effective technique, Chandor assigns little tics to the members of the large cast. Will chomps Nicorette. Peter fiddles with earbuds. Youngster Seth (Penn Badgely) frets about his salary, a mere quarter of a million dollars, and is insatiably curious about what everyone else is making. (Everyone else is making a lot more.) He's not the only one. Even after a couple of characters are laid off, they're comparing the generosity of their severance packages.
Many characters get big speeches, and these are riveting. The best one is by Tucci's Eric, who was trained as an engineer before he made his fortune on Wall Street. He talks with crisp specificity about a bridge he designed in the old days, about the lives it improved. It's a telling moment. In recent decades, highly educated people have forgone careers in the professions so they could get rich in finance. (Quinto's character has a doctorate from M.I.T. in rocket science.)
The most unsettling speech is by Will, about overextended Americans who depend on Wall Street to keep their lavish lifestyles going. He's withering in his contempt for "normal people," and glib about how they'll be affected by the devastation his company is unleashing.
As I read those newspaper articles about the financial crisis, I was frustrated by how abstract it all seemed. I wanted to know: Who did what to whom? What are the names of the people responsible? Margin Call puts a human face on the crisis - a ghastly human face. These are monstrously unattractive characters, callous and self-pitying.
Will boasts of blowing his unfathomable salary on cars and hookers. As the number cruncher, Quinto marvelously reprises the Spockian sangfroid he brought to the Star Trek remake. When, in a quiet moment, Seth cries uncontrollably in a men's room stall, he's not weeping for the normal people. He's weeping because he's about to lose his absurdly lucrative job. Only Sam registers alarm, and not very much of it, at what the industry has become.
Then there is Jeremy Irons, who still does creepy better than anyone. "It's just money," his character drawls in a valedictory speech. "It's made up." That sounds a lot like contempt, and it is the sort of thing that enrages tea partiers and 99 percenters alike: The Wall Street types rake in piles of money, and the normal people suffer.