'Margin Call' Review: A Smart and Slick Look at the Financial Downturn

'Margin Call' begins like 'Up in the Air,' chronicling the downturn of the U.S. economy through the perspective of a human interest story. It tells the tale of a financial firm that realizes belatedly that it's holding onto too much leverage when the economy starts to falter.

Instead of taking a broad look at the financial crisis of 2008, 'Margin Call' focuses on one company and takes place over the period of twenty four hours. Written and directed by J.C. Chandor, the film features a huge cast, so it's often difficult to determine who the main character is. If there is a key player, it's the company that employs most of the other characters--a firm that stands on the brink of collapse.

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Eric Dale (Stanley Tucci), a risk management officer, is one of the firm’s first casualties. He loses his job early on when the company is forced to downsize. Before he is escorted out of the office, Eric hands former underling Peter Sullivan (Zachary Quinto) a disk showing an formula that he’s been working on to assess the company’s financial well-being. When Peter digs deep into future projections for the firm, he discovers that the company has dramatically over-leveraged itself with mortgage-bundled securities.

What starts out as a small discovery from a low-level employee quickly turns into something more. The revelation leads to meetings with managers, supervisors and eventually the head of the company. As the meetings move from one office to another one and from one floor to another, managers played by Simon Baker, Kevin Spacey, and Jeremy Irons are slowly introduced.

In terms of financial terminology and the structure of such a firm (built on status, not experience), I think the screenplay gets a lot of its facts right. However, it loses credibility when it tries to build up suspense. If a major flaw in the system of a financial company was discovered late into the evening, would a board of executives meeting really take place at 2 a.m.with many of the directors actually showing up in suits and ties? Would a company executive really be able to helicopter onto the office roof in the middle of the night?

Aside from such elements, the story itself is well-told and credible. In examining one company through a short time period, the story rejects the urge to talk about the roots of the problem and why the company decided to take on so many risks. Instead, it focuses on a company that, through bad decision-making (either self-inflicted or with the assistance of government programs), has found itself in a precarious position.

At times, the story does show financial firms in a negative light. When the firm downsizes early on, Rogers (Spacey) is more concerned with his dying dog than with the employees that have lost their jobs. However, he eventually becomes the heart of the story. He knows the company has taken on too many risks and has to make some terrible choices to clear off its overburdened books. He's conflicted about the choices that he's eventually forced to make.

Irons also does a fine job projecting the human side of the company. At times, he’s a calculating executive, but in one great conversation, he argues that the market will always have its share of volatility. In the world of trading, some companies will falter while others will succeed. That's the way the world works.

The promise and failures of the film can be understood with a few simple questions. Is the world of financial markets a tough business? Of course. Does 'Margin Call' simplify the complex issues that led to the market downturn in 2008? Undoubtedly. Is it still worth seeing? Yes.

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