Friday, October 21, 2011

Margin Call: Grim tidings

Margin Call (2011) • View trailer for Margin Call
Four stars. Rating: R, for profanity
By Derrick Bang

Moving into the third act of writer/director J.C. Chandor’s Margin Call, I was reminded of the war room discussions in Stanley Kubrick’s 1964 adaptation of Dr. Strangelove, particularly when Peter Sellers’ U.S. President Merkin Muffley and George C. Scott’s Gen. Buck Turgidson argue over “collateral damage.”
Having survived a devastating company layoff, Peter Sullivan (Zachary Quinto)
attempts to settle down for a "normal" day's work. But a financial time bomb is
ticking away in his pocket: the parting gift from a veteran risk analyst who was
escorted out of the building that same morning. Eventually, as day turns to night,
Peter will examine the files on that flash drive ... and then nothing will be the same.

“Mr. President,” Turgidson finally insists, “I’m not saying we wouldn’t get our hair mussed. But I do say no more than 10 to 20 million killed, tops. Uh, depending on the breaks.”

The point, of course — delivered with every possible ounce of chilling satire — is that nobody in this room, filled as it is with people responsible for the safety of the entire United States, has the faintest idea what would happen during an all-out nuclear war. And yet they still argue over “acceptable losses.”

Just as everybody in the board room of the fictitious investment firm in Margin Call debates the acceptable losses certain to arise in the wake of a proposed we’re-first-into-the-lifeboat desperation ploy.

Hell, it’s worse than that. They’re not simply commandeering the first lifeboat; they’re scuttling all the others.

I’m not sure the public is ready for this suggestion of how the 2008 financial crisis kicked off; my own interest was guarded, upon entering the theater. It’s simply too soon: The real-world wound remains too fresh, the resulting carnage still plain in every drawn and desperate face, every freshly foreclosed and empty home that once contained a family that still believed in the American dream.

I worried that Chandor would trivialize actual history, or — worse yet — attempt to build sympathy for the greedy, soulless bastards who fiddled while Wall Street burned.

But, as it turns out, Chandor is much smarter and shrewder than that. He’s also a sharp scripter and a damn fine director, and Margin Call is an extremely impressive feature debut for a fellow whose sole previous credit was a short back in 2004.

Granted, Chandor also had the good sense to assemble an impressive cast ... but a director still needs to know how to encourage excellent work. And he draws fine performances from all concerned.

Chandor’s most brilliant stroke, however, was to resist the temptation to imagine what truly occurred in the late summer of 2008. We can assume that his script evokes Lehman Brothers, and that the two days depicted here offer a guess as to what may have gone down behind closed doors, before that august firm filed for bankruptcy on Sept. 15, 2008.

But it doesn’t really matter. Chandor’s build-up is absorbing, and the subsequent character interactions generate the intensity of a solid, well-acted stage play. We eventually share the horror of those who recognize a catastrophe only after it’s too late to attempt a recovery.

This probably isn’t gospel with respect to Lehman Brothers, but Chandor helps us believe that it could have happened in this manner. This film’s script mounts a persuasive case, and the excellent cast sells it.

Chandor comes by his air of authenticity honestly; although he has no personal experience with the financial industry, his father worked at Merrill Lynch for nearly four decades. Chandor’s most impressive skill here is the ability to depict the drama inherent in an enormously complicated subject, by not falling into the trap of attempting to explain it.

This crisis is discussed in generalities; we never bog down in financial minutia. The horror is conveyed by characters who react in the manner of somebody trapped in a falling elevator after the cable has been cut. Impact is inevitable.

The resulting drama plays out with the impact and searing dialogue that made David Mamet’s Glengarry Glen Ross equally riveting. Some of those characters weren’t very palatable either, but they were no less engrossing.

Events begin during a typical morning at a too-big-to-fail investment firm, never named. This anonymity doesn’t feels forced: quite the contrary. Aside from receptionists, who at a business ever tosses the name of one’s workplace into everyday conversation? Everybody in the room knows where they work.

The day opens with a different sort of calamity: massive layoffs intended to trim the fat and (more likely) pad the next quarterly report. The casualties include veteran risk analyst Eric Dale (Stanley Tucci), who suspects clandestine payback. He has been forwarding strong concerns through chief risk officer Sarah Robertson (Demi Moore), and can’t help wondering if this is the company’s way to silence such warnings.

Eric has been a kind and honorable mentor to junior analyst Peter Sullivan (Zachary Quinto, remembered as young Spock in the re-booted Star Trek), who can’t watch his boss depart without a heartfelt farewell. Genuinely touched, Eric hands over a flash drive containing his most recent, and not quite completed, cost breakdowns.

“Be careful,” he warns.

Peter, along with good friend and fellow analyst Seth Bregman (Penn Badgley), were spared the chopping block; they do their best to work a normal day. Mid-level section head Will Emerson (Paul Bettany), now Peter and Seth’s new boss, cheerfully tells them to get used to such sudden turnover; it has happened before, and it’ll happen again.

Hidden away in his office, veteran executive Sam Rogers (Kevin Spacey) avoids the betrayed expressions of employees forcibly escorted from the building; he agonizes instead over his aging pet dog, in critical condition and not likely to survive much longer. We react as if hit with a cattle prod: This man frets over his dog, while scores of his people are marched out the door?

Ah, but Spacey never delivers a one-dimensional performance, and Sam is far from a dispassionate or dishonorable man. That role falls instead to Simon Baker, whose Jared Cohen is the next step up the ladder: Sam’s boss. Jared is the epitome of the cold, bloodless, arrogant aristocrat who bought or inherited his role in the firm; we hate him on sight, and Baker quite effectively stokes those embers of revulsion.

Bettany’s Will is cold in a different way: coldly pragmatic. The script’s callously clinical observations come from Will: not because he’s a jerk — he is, but that’s a separate issue — but because he truly understands the weird, fragile and morally suspect nature of the “work” they do.

Indeed, these people do no work at all; they certainly don’t produce anything. As Sam notes, bitterly, at one point — with a self-loathing that Spacey delivers so well — if he’d dug ditches for a living, at least he could point to a lot of holes.

Tucci has a similar speech, late in these proceedings; it turns out Eric worked as a civil engineer in a previous life, and built a bridge in Ohio. Eric’s meticulous elaboration of that bridge’s cost-benefit value is amusing at first, then startling and finally awe-inspiring: precisely the sort of soliloquy one would expect from a professional risk analyst.

Jeremy Irons also gets plenty of speeches, as John Tuld, the firm’s mysterious and powerful CEO. Tuld’s one talent — he explains this, flatly, to Peter — is the ability to recognize when the music has stopped. And to take decisive action in the aftermath.

Peter eventually meets Tuld because, rather than join Seth and Will for celebratory drinks that same evening, he remains behind and studies Eric’s unfinished analysis. Peter fills in the blanks, then blinks with a mixture of disbelief and sick terror; can it really be true? The information works its way up the food chain, as evening turns to early morning; eventually, all the players occupy a table with Tuld.

Everybody wants Eric in the room, as well, but of course he was fired earlier that day. And his phone was turned off. And nobody can find him, and his wife reports that he hasn’t been home yet.

The tension rises every step of the way; Chandor truly knows how to hold our attention. The story offers no eleventh-hour surprises, no foolish Hollywood Hail-Mary passes: just the sickening fascination that comes with witnessing a train wreck. The fact that this particular catastrophe remains theoretical and fictitious — Chandor’s impression of the situation, rather than a depiction of factual events — makes it no less compelling.

And, ultimately, Chandor does indulge in a bit of moralizing; the statements come from Bettany’s Will and Irons’ Tuld. Yes, these Wall Street fat cats are venal, soulless bastards — most of them — but as a nation we bear at least some responsibility, for demanding a lifestyle to which we’re really not entitled.

Cliff Robertson’s final admonition at the end of Three Days of the Condor comes to mind, as he warns idealistic Robert Redford of the cold, hard truth: “What do you think the people are gonna want us to do? Ask ’em when they’re running out. Ask ’em when there’s no heat in their homes, and they’re cold. You wanna know something? They won’t want us to ask ’em. They’ll just want us to get it for them.”

Margin Call is disturbing, fascinating and always persuasive. It probably depicts Wall Street truth; it certainly depicts truthful human behavior. Which, ideally, we should learn from.

Always the goal of good drama.

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