The new movie "Margin Call," which opens in select cities today, centers on a 24-hour period in a Lehman Brothers-like firm that finds itself on the wrong side of some very bad investments. First time writer-director J. C. Chandor could have made an overblown movie a la Oliver Stone, with clear good guys and villains squaring off in dramatic monologues against the backdrop of Hamptons mansions and private jets. Instead, Chandor, who is the son of a Wall Street stockbroker, offers a much quieter, and, one surmises, realistic, take. The film takes place in the sterile halls and boardrooms of a Manhattan office building. The conversations are tense and hushed. No one is an overt villain, with one exception: Everyone approaches the crisis, which could be ruinous to millions, with a completely amoral logic.
The company's problem is discovered by Peter Sullivan (Zachery Quinto), a lowly risk analyst with a great head of hair. His discovery gets kicked further and further up the corporate ladder, pulling one boss from revelry in a midtown bar and another from his just-euthanized pet dog, until the CEO, John Tuld (played by a deliciously sinister Jeremy Irons), calls a 4 a.. board meeting. He asks Sullivan to explain the problem to him "as if he were a child, or perhaps a golden retriever." Earlier in the film, Sullivan admits that he holds "an advanced degree in propulsion from MIT." In other words, he's a rocket scientist.
For anyone who watched Charles Ferguson's terrific documentary "Inside Job" — and there was no movie more frightening last year than that movie — the scene rings true. The mathematics involved with creating and trading derivatives has become so abstruse that only people like MIT-trained rocket scientists can understand them. More to the point, as Chandor deftly underlines, Sullivan — along with other characters — is part of a whole generation that was so seduced by staggering Wall Street salaries they veered away from making something useful for society, like rockets and bridges, to making something essentially useless to society, like credit default swaps.
In that boardroom scene, Tuld outlines a plan to dump the firm's toxic assets even though that would cause tremendous economic devastation. And with the exception of veteran seller Sam Rogers (Kevin Spacey in a terrific performance), no one raises objections. After all, the prime directive of the company, as Tuld puts it, is to "survive."
With the Occupy Wall Street movement growing every day, the new movie "Margin Call" certainly feels timely. Depending on your political affiliation, "Margin Call" is either a depiction of the brutal efficiencies of the marketplace or a quiet, nuanced example of the banality of evil. Either way, Chandor illustrates his world of the proverbial 1% with admirable restraint.