Margin Call is a remarkable movie. The premise is straightforward: 24 hours in the life of a Lehman Brothers-esque finance firm at the start of the 2008 financial crisis. Since we all know how that turned out, the audience can sit back and just watch the wonderful acting, the smart, tight writing, and atmospheric dread hanging over every shot.
Let’s start with the actors. Zachary Quinto (Star Trek) plays a young financial analyst who discovers that something’s very wrong with the firm’s books. I’ve liked his acting ever since I saw him as the scarily malevolent Sylar in the TV series Heroes (before it jumped the shark). Kevin Spacey (The Usual Suspects and so many others) is his world-weary boss. Simon Baker (The Mentalist) plays Kevin Spacey’s boss. Demi Moore (A Few Good Men) and Jeremy Irons (Die Hard: With a Vengeance) round out the star-studded cast. Even Aasif Mandvi (The Daily Show), and Mary McDonnell (Battlestar Galactica) make appearances in the film.
All this acting talent is not wasted. The opening scene of mass layoffs at the firm recall the impersonal corporate coldness of George Clooney’s Up in the Air. As the scope of the coming financial disaster is revealed, the situation is “escalated” to ever-higher layers of superiors who are as willfully ignorant of the details of how their own firm runs as they are obscenely rich and profligate in their use of power.
I loved how the director assumes the audience is smart. Financial jargon is largely unexplained, combined with clever use of “plain-English” exposition where the underlings have to explain to the bosses how much trouble they’re in. Even the movie’s title is never mentioned in the movie – if you know what a margin call is, you know it’s bad, and it doesn’t bode well for the firm. Another touch I really liked was the use of Chopin’s Raindrop Prelude during a key point in the film. The prelude (Prélude in D-flat Major, Op. 28, No. 15) is all about rain – a sweet, light sprinkle in the beginning; stormy and turbulent in the middle; the rain washes away in the end. The passage used was, of course, the middle passage to presage the coming storm. A perfect touch.
Easily one of my favorite films of the year.