When Oliver Stone updated his carticles/wall-street,7489/ franchise in 2010 for the current economic crisis, he did everything he could to make the abstract concepts of credit default swaps and sub-prime mortgage bubbles seem dazzlingly cinematic. (In fact, he signifies the latter with an actual bubble floating and popping. Truly, a master of metaphor.) But the financial apocalypse, when it comes, won’t involve anything as spectacularly cinematic as a bubble popping or Shia LaBeouf riding a Ducati: It’ll center on pencil-necked analysts staring at computer monitors and spreadsheets, puzzling through projections even they have trouble comprehending. If nothing else, Margin Call serves as a rebuke to Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps’ emphatic style—which ultimately glamorizes the profession it means to shame—and brings this dangerous numbers game back to the trading-floor desktops and mahogany-covered conference tables where it belongs. It isn’t sexy, but the stakes feel much higher.
Set during one long 24-hour period, Margin Call opens at a Lehman Brothers-like New York investment firm that’s resting its century-plus history on a rapidly crumbling foundation. After a veteran risk-management officer (Stanley Tucci) loses his job in the latest round of layoffs, he leaves his egghead protégé (Zachary Quinto) with a flash drive and urges him to look at the information on it. As Quinto analyzes the data, he discovers that the company is severely overleveraged, and if market trends curve even slightly in the wrong direction, the health of the firm—and the entire global economic system—could be in jeopardy. This revelation leads to a series of panicked meetings and drastic, morally unsettling decisions at both the top of the company, where a reliably vampiric Jeremy Irons holds court, and on the trading floor, where manager Kevin Spacey is asked to rally the troops.
At its best, Margin Call feels like the Fail Safe of our time, a doomsday thriller where the fate of the world rests on a few people with their fingers on the button. Writer-director J.C. Chandor lays it on a bit too thick at times, like with one shot that squeezes a cleaning woman between the suits determining her fate, or another that has Irons perched in his ivory tower, nibbling steak as the city below is about to burn. Yet Chandor respects viewers enough not to dumb down the language, and the performances carry the proper tone of escalating panic. And above all, Margin Call is clear-headed and fair: These men and woman are neither evil nor heroic, just grappling in different ways with a situation that’s spun out of their control.