When it comes to Wall Street, filmmakers fall into two camps. Those enraged that these bastards in nice suits are raking it in without leaving their desks, and the acolytes – those who, whether they know it or not, are hypnotised by the power, wealth, and, well, nice suits.
But Margin Call is a contender for best Wall Street film yet because it neither attacks nor drools over the employees at its Lehman-style firm facing the earliest ripples of the 2008 crash. Debut writer/director J.C. Chandor presents these characters not as indifferent masters of the universe, nor as vampires, but as people – and his film is the stronger for it.
We open with Zachary Quinto’s young trader being handed a USB by outgoing risk manager Stanley Tucci. On it he finds data proving that the long boom they’ve been experiencing is set to disappear overnight. As this information rises up the hierarchy, urgency builds, and more and more higher-ups come in at 2am to work out how to save the company.
Resisting any urge toward crude speechifying, Chandor’s script refuses simplification of the mechanisms involved while remaining comprehensible. Having a cracking ensemble doesn’t hurt. Kevin Spacey excels as a conscience-wrestling head of trading; Paul Bettany matches him as a pragmatic alpha male, and Quinto, Tucci, Demi Moore and Jeremy Irons are all ace.
Crucially, none play ciphers or caricatures. Each gets a key moment of vulnerability, away from public eyes, and – just for a second – we see the personal cost written across their faces. Their souls are dying, and Chandor’s subtlety is masterful.
Steering clear of overt condemnation or adulation of morally dubious characters, this is sophisticated cinema that respects the audience’s ability to follow complex subject matter.