IT’S 2008 and we’re in a Manhattan skyrise, in the offices of a bank that may or may not be based on Lehman Brothers. All hell is about to break loose when, following a round of sackings, a USB stick emerges from now-ex employee Eric Dale (Stanley Tucci). As he puts the drive in the hands of junior analyst and maths genius Peter Sullivan (Zachary Quinto), he says “be careful” as the lift door closes.
Staying late at work that night, Sullivan opens the drive, crunches some numbers on an unfinished formula and sees a heinous catastrophe. Calling in his superiors, he sets in motion a chain of events that will change not just the lives of bankers, but those of the nation and beyond forever.
This is director J.C. Chandor’s first feature film, and it is a small-budget arthouse affair. There is no sex, no violence and no police chases. There is, on the other hand, a watertight sequence of riveting action and a cast that would make most directors cry (and their pockets groan), including Kevin Spacey, Jeremy Irons, Stanley Tucci, Demi Moore and Paul Bettany. Oscar nominations are in the pipeline, if whispers are to be believed.
Margin Call deserves the whispers. It is a lean film: all muscle, all thrust. Above all, it refuses to portray bankers as greedy monsters. As the house of cards tumbles, we see that they are human and full of nerves, anxiety, fear and indecision. Their intelligence, desire for survival and – in the case of Spacey’s long-serving director – sense of right and wrong are pitted against powerful forces and the horrible catch-22 they now find themselves in. Much of the action takes place in the early hours as Irons’s CEO John Tuld (that name may remind you of someone) grasps the situation, then chooses an inevitably grisly – some would say inhuman – course of action.
City veterans may find flaw in the details, but this is a film about action, acting and history that is both absorbing and highly enjoyable to watch.