(JC Chandor, 2011)
What Margin Call does so well is make an audience understand the broad themes of what happened in the Stock Market crisis in 2008. That it also manages to make of that hellish mess an involving drama seems a minor miracle.
It does that through good writing and some brilliant acting. Indeed, the quality of the cast testifies to the potency of debutant writer-director JC Chandor's screenplay. He follows 36 hours in the life of Junior risk analyst Peter Sullivan (Zachary Quinto), who watches his boss (Stanley Tucci) get laid off in the morning, takes a file from him as he leaves - with the warning "Be careful" - runs the numbers that night, and realises that his firm is on the edge of financial Armageddon. From there, the crisis grows and climbs the links of the companys chain of command, through Peter's cocky-but-decent boss (Paul Bettany) and his boss, the tired and lonely veteran of the industry with both a beloved dog dying of cancer (canine symbol ahoy!) and moral objections to what is happening (Kevin Spacey), then up to the smooth young CEO (Simon Baker) before the company owner, a cynical old Billionaire who sees it all as a grand game (Jeremy Irons) is choppered in for a meeting of shareholders at 4AM.
These actors each get a moment or two to grandstand; a speech here, a dawning realisation there, a snippy argument then. Chandor is excellent on the polite, guarded politics in each room, the seniority and rivalry driving every conversation, but even better on the way this bombshell lands; the shock on their faces as they realise what is about to happen and what it means. Spacey probably has the greatest emotional journey to undertake, and he is the best he has been in a long time here, fragile with middle-age, his sometime bitchy ferocity gone soft and flabby with worry and guilt.
Perhaps wise to the publics cynicism about bankers and traders, Chandor is also careful to ensure that these people question themselves and their purpose in the face of crisis; Tucci recalls the practical difference he made in an earlier career as an engineer, Irons and Spacey both make separate arguments about their existence being worthwhile, even necessary. Meanwhile, Bettany gets to say "Fuck normal people" in a rant about public complicity.
All of this is tightly written, and the actors plainly relish the material. But Chandor cannot make this tale of offices and corridors visually exciting, for all his aerial views of nocturnal Manhattan. It is efficiently, often boringly directed, the single factor that makes me think it would work better as a theatrical piece than as a solid (or middling) film.