Dir. J.C. Chandor
(2011, R, 107 min)

Margin Call is the movie Too Big to Fail should have been. The HBO telefilm, which tried to cover the 2008 financial crisis from the top down in just 100 minutes, had a plaster-dry instructive approach, reiterating what was already better explained in the documentary Inside Job and otherwise failing to provide much dramatic interest. In contrast, Margin Call is laser-focused. It takes place over one day at a fictional New York investment bank, where all of a sudden they realize their numbers don’t add up and they must negotiate the apocalypse.

The boardroom meetings and shop talk reveal the characters bit by bit – what they know, what they stand for. This is an apolitical film in the sense that it does not espouse any particular philosophy on capitalism. The characters are neither archetypes of integrity nor greed. They are thinking, feeling individuals making decisions based on the information at hand and the principles they hold. Many of them we may disagree with. They disagree with each other. Writer-director J.C. Chandor earned an Oscar nomination for his screenplay. For good reason.

Jeremy Irons, and John Tuld

The most fascinating detail, not dwelt upon but left for us to observe, is how people farther and farther up the food chain of this financial firm are less and less knowledgeable, and more and more ruthless. We meet a pair of underlings, Seth and Peter (Penn Badgley and Zachary Quinto). Their boss is played by Stanley Tucci. His boss is played by Paul Bettany, whose boss is played by Kevin Spacey. And so on and so on until we get to Jeremy Irons as John Tuld, the head of the company. Tuld rhymes with Fuld, as in Lehman Brothers CEO Dick Fuld, perhaps indicating what this fictional firm was modeled after.

The underlings have the greatest expertise. They have to; it’s their job to know. Their bosses’ jobs are to find out what the underlings know. “Tell me in plain English,” we hear said many times. This could be a helpful device for the benefit of the audience, to keep us from being overwhelmed by jargon, but there’s more to it than that. Chandor is not merely simplifying the language for us. The bosses need it simplified for them, because they don’t understand it. At a pivotal meeting with the top brass, Tuld asks Peter, who is literally a rocket scientist, to speak to him as if he were a child or golden retriever. Knowledge is below his pay grade.

The hierarchy is enough to make the film interesting, but it’s the human texture Chandor adds that makes it fully absorbing. Everyone seems like a big fish to their subordinates, but we discover that almost every boss is someone else’s subordinate and then we get the measure of the men, and we find sympathy where we don’t initially expect to. Bettany seems imposing, mildly sinister early on, until a scene in which he stands on the edge of the building, making light of jumping, and we realize he too is mostly powerless.

But it’s Spacey who took me most by surprise. He played a monstrous corporate authoritarian in Horrible Bosses, and he brought the hammer down on poor Jack Lemmon in Glengarry Glen Ross. Spacey is a natural in those reptilian kinds of roles, but he proves to be the heart of this film, with pragmatism informed by conscience. He’s a survivor, but he cares at whose expense. If financial firms were run by people like him, maybe the financial crisis wouldn’t have happened, but he may not be ruthless enough to be a Wall Street CEO. Conscience impedes the flow of money, or else money will impede the flow of conscience.