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Margin Call

Zachary Quinto in "Margin Call"

House of Games

Margin Call

Some of you may have seen the German film The Wannsee Conference, which played American theaters in the late 1980s and was released on VHS (but has yet to appear on DVD). It re-enacts the luncheon meeting that took place in a Berlin suburb one day in January 1942, during which the “Final Solution,” the Nazi policy of Jewish extermination, was agreed upon.

By 1942, of course, the death camps were already in operation. The purpose of the meeting was for Reinhard Heydrich, the SS general primarily tasked with the extermination, to report on the scope of his operations to members of the German government, essentially making them parties to the policy.

Faithfully recreated from minutes taken at the meeting, it’s a dry film. Terms like “killing” or “extermination” are never used. Everyone attending knew what Heydrich was talking about. So do we, and the banality of the event is precisely what is so horrifying about it: the sight and sound of a group of bureaucrats agreeing to one of history’s greatest atrocities as if they were approving road repairs.

It helps to keep that example in mind when watching Margin Call. It is clearly one of the best American films of the year—suffice to say that the cast includes Kevin Spacey, Stanley Tucci, Jeremy Irons, Paul Bettany, and Demi Moore, all as good as they have ever been, along with some lesser-known names who match them at every step.

But it’s a film that may confound audiences who expect that it will explain to them the financial meltdown of 2008. A single film is unlikely to be able to do that (though by all means see the Oscar-winning documentary Inside Job, which clarifies enough of the financial shenanigans of the past few decades to make you feel like the protagonist of an H. P. Lovecraft story, driven to madness at a glimpse of infinite horrors). Writer-director J. C. Chandor, in an amazingly proficient and assured debut, attempts not to explain the financial morass but to look at the kind of people who created it, rode the wave, and bailed out when their greed caught up with them. (His father worked for Merrill Lynch for 40 years.)

By the same token, neither does Chandor’s film work up a fit of righteous anger at these events. Only once does a 99 percenter show up on screen—a cleaning woman who shares the elevator with two of the bankers, who talk through her as if she wasn’t there. That lack of connection to the world most of us live in is what makes the film so unsettling.

Margin Call primarily takes place one night at a Wall Street investment bank. A junior analyst working late discovers that the firm is on the verge of complete collapse thanks to its overleveraged investments in CDOs—toxic mortgage assets. It’s only through luck that the bank hasn’t collapsed already, and the information is such that other investors and competitors are likely to discover it at any time.

Proceeding in the incremental manner of a disaster movie (which of course it what this is), he reports the news to his superior, who at first won’t believe him. It goes up through a line of officers who invariably say the same thing: “Explain it to me in plain English.” No one, it seems, understands precisely what they’ve been doing: Who looks under the hood of a car that seems to be getting great mileage?

When the news gets to the top, the CEO arrives by helicopter for a 4am emergency meeting. His suggestion: Dump as much of the toxic assets as possible the next day before the market figures what they’re up to. That this will probably cause enormous turmoil in the market is clear to them; what it means to the lives of millions of people who don’t live in their rarified world is at best a dim abstraction.

Margin Call has much in common with the best work of David Mamet, especially Glengarry Glen Ross. The dialogue is less florid but equally powerful, and the performances uniformly tremendous. Spacey in particular hasn’t been this good in a long time, but even the lesser-known names (including Penn Badgley and Zachary Quinto, Mr. Spock in the new Star Trek, as the junior analysts) hold their own.

Idiotically, this film is rated R because people curse. By all means take teenagers to see it. Some of it may be over their heads, but some of it is going to be over most viewers’ heads.

Watch the trailer for Margin Call

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