Eric Dale (Stanley Tucci) was fired today. He worked for a powerful investment company, and on his floor there are a whole bunch of colleagues losing their jobs, but he was more important than most, for he was about to find something out about their dealings which will have huge implications on not only their business, but the businesses of the world. Nevertheless, he is ordered to clear his desk and told his privileges end as of now, though as he walks to the elevator he manages to hand over a memory stick containing his workings to one of his subordinates, Peter Sullivan (Zachary Quinto), who pieces the research together...
As far as films went, the financial crisis of the early twenty-first century was mostly relegated to the documentary field, with such movies as Inside Job and Capitalism: A Love Story putting the boot into the financial institutions who gambled with the public's money and lost big, at times deliberately. First time writer and director J.C. Chandor's Margin Call served up something different on that theme, as it was a drama from inside a fictional corporation which stood in for those at the heart of the scandal. However, there was a further new angle to his approach: that these guys were not out and out villains, as they had their human side.
So what you didn't get here were a school of corporate sharks well and truly messing about with our money while they survived to fight another day as the government, and by extension we, bailed them out, for with some of the characters you were supposed to be genuinely feeling sorry for them, as if they had got in over their heads and allowed a situation to get out of control in runaway train fashion. Some found this hard to take, especially when you see Kevin Spacey's executive in the early stages tugging at the heartstrings when his beloved pet dog is sick and due to be put down, as if Chandor was protesting too much, but when you learned his father was one of those traders then you began to see where he was coming from.
Chandor at least had personal experience of the crisis, so you could understand why he wasn't going to be utterly scathing, with the results that his story was sympathetic almost to a fault. Bolstering the more emotional side which threatened to dominate were a brace of excellent performances from a surprisingly well-qualified ensemble, often bringing out the more hardnosed aspects to remind us this was no soppy tale of woe, but a more serious and indeed grimmer yarn that had real connections to the world. Much of the problem it tackled was down to the public assuming those money men did know what they were doing when it was too complicated for the rest of us to follow, and the actors did convey that savvy even if the dialogue was noticeably simplified.
Simplified but not dumbed down, though when the big boss Jeremy Irons arrives and indulges us by asking for the situation to be explained to him as if he were a small child or Golden Retriever you did feel as if Chandor was veering close to patronising us in the audience. That said, when Paul Bettany's character actually is patronising (the two Englishmen here are utter baddies) in a fine speech where he declaims the normal people who were just as guilty as their bankers were because they wanted the easy life and the luxuries that the bankers could manufacture for them by basically cheating the figures and taking massive risks that would have to be reckoned with eventually, then it's a potent moment. Yet that doesn't quite tell the whole story, as we had put our trust in the financial whizzes and they had betrayed that trust, we were naive but it's little wonder we felt taken advantage of, which may have you watching Margin Call with a more cynical eye than its creator may have intended. Music by Nathan Larson.