by Joan Ellis
Movies don’t get more topical than Margin Call. At a time when the country is polarized between those who blame the banks for the financial crisis and those who blame the government, here is a movie that takes a sharp look at the self-induced collapse of a major Wall Street investment firm. The fact that it raises more questions than it answers suggests simply that we need Margin Call, Part II. If ever a story could sustain two films, this is it.
The ugly details unfold at warp speed in one 24-hour period as an excellent cast conveys the bewilderment of the stunned executive hierarchy. The trigger? Along with 80 percent of the company’s workforce, Eric Dale (Stanley Tucci) was fired this morning. His cell phone and computer were deactivated as he took the now familiar and humiliating perp walk from office to street carrying the contents of his desk in a cardboard box. As Eric leaves, he hands Peter (Zachary Quinto) a USB flash drive and tells him to check on the news it carries: the inevitable and immediate demise of the firm.
Peter is a comer, a 28-year old whiz who grasps instantly that the firm’s behavior has exceeded the risk limits of the model set up by the Risk Management group headed by Sarah Roberts (Demi Moore). That violation, already committed, is fatal. What to do? In a fascinating look at the behavior of financial men under siege, we are treated to an escalating drama that rips at the complex mix of their personal values and business ethics.
The bad news is passed upward, an announcement of career death to each superior. In short order the news reaches the top gun, John Tuld (Jeremy Irons) who arrives on the rooftop by helicopter in the middle of the night for an emergency session with his managers to design a strategy that must be in place before the Exchange opens in the morning.
Consummate actor that he is, Jeremy Irons displays, with few words, all the power and presence of his position. In a neat nod to a now confused audience, he tells his subordinates, “Speak to me in plain English.” That done, he announces the only possible course: unwind all the firm’s trading positions before the market catches on, a move that will destroy entirely the firm’s reputation in the financial community. Kevin Spacey is terrific as mid-level Sam who wrestles with inner ethics and morals. As Sarah Roberts, Demi Moore reveals none of the presence that would have gotten her where she is; Stanley Tucci is grand as the fired executive now released from performance mode and free to be angry. Zachary Quinto shows the smarts and strength Peter will need to play by the rules of the game on the path to a future pinnacle. But it is here, wrapped in impeccable dark suits and self-protecting restraint, that these men reveal the personal price they have paid for collective success.