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Disaster Movie

Margin Call inadvertently becomes the film of this financial moment.

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Movie night at Zuccotti Park!

Yes, the fine men and women dug in downtown need to get themselves a big screen, a projector, and a few thousand tubs of popcorn, because J. C. Chandor’s Margin Call is to Occupy Wall Street what The China Syndrome was to Three Mile Island: the fiction that will make it, here in Movie-Mad America, ever so much more real.

Beyond that, it’s a hell of a picture. And shrewd.

We the audience are not down below with—or even, necessarily, on the side of—the bankrupt, the downsized, the unshowered masses. We’re waaaay above the street in the offices of a mighty finance firm staring out at a sea of blue-lit high-rises. We’re perched over the shoulder of risk-management underling Peter Sullivan (Zachary Quinto) as he scrutinizes a computer file passed on to him by his newly deep-sixed boss, Eric Dale (Stanley Tucci), and then suddenly gets that same “Oh … my … God” look on his face as the guy in Deep Impact who realizes a planet-killing meteor is headed straight for Earth. Peter has just seen many of his colleagues coldly given their marching orders, so doom is in the air. But this new development is … apocalyptic.

No, I can’t fully elucidate the nature of the onrushing disaster—and one of the film’s few jokes is that the higher-ups can’t read the elaborate graphs either. But they all, to a person, know instantly what’s coming: complete economic conflagration. What spooks them is not the realization that their assets are toxic. It’s the imminent prospect of everyone else’s knowing. So Peter pulls his half-drunk boss, Will Emerson (Paul Bettany), out of a club, and then Will calls his boss, Sam Rogers (Kevin Spacey), who turns his car around and heads back to the firm, and we move with Peter (who, being a former rocket scientist, is brought along to explain the situation) up to each successive corporate level—or, depending on your perspective, down to each Dantean circle.

Every character is a subtler breed of predator than we’re used to—or a more evolved Randian, or a more sanguine (and better-paid) moral accommodationist. Bettany’s drunken nihilist, with his weird (Irish?) accent, gives way to Spacey’s snappish company man, who escorts us to Simon Baker’s smug Jared Cohen—the most obviously repellent Master of the Universe, with no evident soul to lose—and Demi Moore’s grim Sarah Robertson, with her faintly wizened face and short skirt, the lone female top executive, the one who passed up the chance to have a family and will be first in line for the chop. The helicopter setting down on the roof in the wee hours brings Jeremy Irons’s John (rhymes with Fuld) Tuld, more of a smiling killer than Boris Karloff in his heyday and far less accountable to a Higher Authority.

Margin Call is low-key, the histrionics dampened by the thick carpeting and double-paned glass, by the weight of keeping up appearances. The characters, lit from the side and bottom, get that gray, greasy, muzzy look of people who haven’t slept and whose hearts are racing too fast even to try. Apart from Quinto’s Sullivan, who comes from the world of pure science and retains a smidgen of ingenuousness, these are not likable figures—and yet however much we hate them, we are on their side. For one thing, there’s no one else around. For another, Chandor has structured Margin Call like a disaster movie, and we can’t help being fascinated by problem-solving, especially when it involves throwing around obscene amounts of money. Finally, we moviegoers have more fun when we identify with winners, no matter how unsavory. It’s a habit that has been more than a century in the making and will be difficult to shake. That’s why none of those Debbie Downer Iraq movies made a dime.

There is a moral center—of a sort. Spacey’s Sam Rogers begins the film in his office as many of his employees are fired, staring out the window, his eyes red from crying. But his tears are for his dying dog. Called to rouse his remaining forces, he emerges, stony as Dick Cheney, and tells them they’ve survived and have therefore “won.” But even this not-nice, philosophically complacent capitalist turns out to have a line he’s loath to cross: a fire sale of worthless assets dumped on unsuspecting customers, many of whom will go bust. How, he asks, can it make business sense when those people will never trust you again? Tuld says he’ll take care of that, and maybe he can: Goldman Sachs was caught betting against the very assets it was pitching to clients—and its executives are unbowed.

Spacey gives a major performance, his best in many years, as a near-dead soul groggily shaking off layers of insulation and beginning to feel again, and Quinto triumphs over not only a part with fewer and fewer lines but also the memories we have of him glowering at a computer screen in 24. There is a special joy in seeing an old-style Joan Crawford ham like Demi Moore stop emoting and give the performance of her life, and in watching a pro like Tucci signal momentous emotion merely by gritting his teeth. Irons is a little sepulchral for my taste, but the way in which he drops the boom on Moore’s character—almost tenderly—shows his own killer genius.


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