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Margin Call Walks Through Wall Street

Neil Mathieson | Friday, April 27, 2012

In 2011, a drama finally attempted to address the convoluted back woods of the finance industry that caused the economic crisis in 2008.

More relevant than ever, the sharp and shrewd “Margin Call” cuts like a scalpel into an often ethically opaque industry few Americans are privy to but are all affected by.

Unfortunately, most people missed “Margin Call” and with it, a genuinely fair but decidedly uncompassionate look into an uncompassionate industry.

This could be due to the film lacking a real leading star or perhaps its “too close to home” subject matter; but for whatever reason, it is one of the year’s most overlooked films. “Margin Call” remains overlooked despite being nominated for an Oscar for best screenplay.

Since 2008 it has become popular to demonize Wall-Streeters. Seeing them as nothing but conniving and money-hungry, we are quick to direct our anger towards them. People protest in the streets, seeking restitution from the individuals that managed, gambled and eventually lost their money.

Luckily, “Margin Call” is not a battle cry attempting to galvanize such a movement. Instead it humanizes the events of 2008 so many of us hear about but so little of us truly understand.

The film takes place over the course of day, as a firm realizes that their holdings of mortgage-backed securities are about to go sour. The bottom is about to drop out of the subprime market and in approximately 24 hours the company will be of no value.

The company decides to get out of the market, salvaging what they can while selling their worthless assets to uninformed buyers. The crisis is first discovered by an analyst on the bottom of the financial totem pole. Over the course of the film, we watch as this piece of information moves its way up to the top and leaves destruction in its wake.

The script, by writer/director J.C  Chandor, is an original written with a truncated eloquence. His father, a former employee at Merrill Lynch, gives Chandor a background to intelligently write about the subject. The dialogue, quick and constant, fascinates the viewer. Its meticulous word choice allows the average non-Wall Street insider a lucid window in without compromising the film’s authenticity.

For the characters, every conversation is a chess match, and it’s a business deal. The characters enter into a precarious juggling act in which participants must completely protect their interests while practicing rabid opportunism.

Luckily, the cast in “Margin Call” is stacked with talent. It’s an ensemble with the ability to take such an impressive creation off the page and run with it.

Jeremy Irons, Kevin Spacey, Demi Moore and Paul Bettany are all present, giving performances that are all busting with restrained energy. Jeremy Irons shines slightly brighter than most, playing the firm’s duplicitous CEO. His scenes are an immense pleasure to watch as he orchestrates his character’s pragmatism and hubris brilliantly.

Like Jeremy Irons, those at the top rarely get hurt when it hits the fan. Their position often protects their incompetence, and as we see in “Margin Call,” it is almost always their professional inferiors that are sacrificed and the public that suffers.

People have growing disdain for the “one percent” who often feel their stature and affluence elevates their value over others.

However, “Margin Call” neither disputes nor proves these sentiments. It is not here to play the blame game or be any sort of arbiter of people’s characters. The system and the story is what Chandor keeps the spotlight on – and both are replete with intrigue.