Kevin Spacey weeps over his dying dog as a senior broker at a Wall Street investment bank on the brink of financial ruin in “Margin Call.”
The bankers in this smart film, set over 24 hours at the beginning of the 2008 financial crisis and showing in competition at the Berlin Film Festival, are no Gordon Gekkos. First-time feature director J.C. Chandor portrays them as cynical yet human; some are even likeable. That may be because his father worked at Merrill Lynch & Co. for 40 years.
The ominous opening has a team of groomed, efficient personnel managers swarming through a department of the bank, offering severance packages, crates for personal belongings, insincere sympathy and a brochure titled “Moving On.”
Fired risk analyst Eric Dale (Stanley Tucci) passes a USB stick to his junior colleague Peter Sullivan (Zachary Quinto) on his way out the door. Sullivan, who has a Ph.D. in nuclear physics, is one of the few department employees to keep his job. “Be careful,” Dale warns as he passes over the stick.
Sullivan pores over the data on his computer late that evening and finds real-estate liabilities worth several times the bank’s capital in its packaged debt products. He alerts his boss, prompting a midnight crisis meeting.
The aloof Chief Executive John Tuld (the name may be viewed as an allusion to former Lehman Brothers Inc. CEO Richard Fuld) helicopters in to hatch a rescue plan. Demi Moore plays a risk manager whose warnings weren’t heeded.
The team plots to offload billions of dollars of toxic debt as quickly as possible before customers catch on to the quantities involved and the market collapses. Tuld (played by Jeremy Irons) predicts the operation will spark a major financial crisis, yet insists it is the only course of action.
“Margin Call” maintains pace and tension, though the action all takes place in the offices and meeting rooms of one Wall Street skyscraper with spectacular views of the city by night. Apart from the high-powered cast, it’s a low-budget film. There are no car chases, no arrests, no violence. More surprisingly under the circumstances, no tempers fly.
While there are parallels to events at Lehman, this is not a film a clef for insiders to decipher. Even the complex debt products are helpfully explained by Sullivan to Tuld, who doesn’t understand them (“I didn’t get where I am today by being intelligent,” he says.)
Paul Bettany, whose performance as brash salesman Will Emerson is so believable you wonder whether you’ve met him, gives details to two junior colleagues of how he managed to spend earnings of $2.5 million the previous year.
Though shocked to realize he spent more than $70,000 on hookers and strippers, he says “but I can claim most of that back as expenses.”
Doubt about the value of their work haunts Spacey’s character and the fired analyst, Dale. He describes how in a former life as an engineer he once built a bridge that saved commuters hours of travel time. His implication is that that was a worthwhile occupation -- unlike his current profession.
What the Stars Mean: **** Excellent *** Good ** Average * Poor (No stars) Worthless
For more information on the Berlin Film Festival, go to http://www.berlinale.de/en.
(Catherine Hickley is a writer for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. Opinions expressed are her own.)