Sundance Review: Margin Call Screams for Attention

Margin Call works. Carefully crafted performances and taut pacing carry the day, but the topic featured, the precise moment when we looked at our economy and realized it had been lying to us, is also desperately in need of cinematic exposition. Margin Call tells the story of one lone (albeit dramatized) risk analyst having an epiphany, and the step-by-step process that unfolded to unleash calamity upon the whole financial system afterward. The movie also delves, for good measure, into the types of personalities it takes to make decisions like these, decisions that will affect hundreds of millions of people, far-reaching choices that rapidly eroded the trust in the system over the course of a few days.

The opening scene of Margin Call deals with a mid-level risk manager being laid off. He'd been working on something big, but he doesn't get the chance to finish his work before he's handed a severance package and escorted out of the building by security. His young protege, played with verve by Zachary Quinto, picks up the task where his fallen comrade left off, and what he finds shakes his confidence in the entire institution. The numbers no longer add up for this particular trading desk, as the liability on their mortgage-backed securities now far outweighs the total market capitalization of the entire company. Quinto quickly informs his new boss, played by Paul Bettany, and we're off and running.

With each step of Margin Call you have financial players put in tough positions. It starts with lightweights like Quinto's character, who does the "right" thing and tells his superiors about the mess they've stepped into. From there on out the choices become less clear, and the "game" becomes far more esoteric. The executives, heavyweights in the grand scheme, realize their finding will undercut the entire financial market. But not acting in their own self-interest will result in the investment bank failing, and someone else will likely pull the trigger instead, resulting in everyone becoming rapidly unemployed.

The most interesting facet of Margin Call is the balance with which each character is presented. Kevin Spacey plays Paul Bettany's boss, and his choice involves whether to "save" his bank while certainly dooming his longtime trading partners and costing his subordinates their jobs. This is just one of the Faustian bargains being presented on this fateful day, and other major characters are forced to look at similarly awful propositions.

As an aside, it was likely probability that did us in. Fancy programs were built and utilized that squeezed every bit of revenue out of every step of the entire system. But the whole industry, from the mortgaged-backed securities to the credit default swaps to AIG swooping in to take away any moral hazard was based upon the theory -- the relatively solid theory -- that improbable things don't happen. Unfortunately for us, they do. You're not likely to get married or perish ... right up until the exact day you do. And so a system based on a perception "good times for all" was buoyant and robust right up until the moment it found itself staring into the abyss. Margin Call is about that giant crater, and the men who looked directly into it and saw only the coming pain.

The only negative aspects of Margin Call are the rare moments it attempts to pull at the heartstrings. Certain scenes are meant to humanize, but far too many humans are involved for one or two of them to attain emotional significance. I found myself pleased instead when the film was focusing on pulling at the headstrings, as they haven't been pulled on enough, creating precisely the culture that got us into this mess to begin with. Luckily, these overly dramatic moments only take up a few minutes of the film. They never manage to sabotage the work as a whole.

Margin Call has an innovative story arc and solid acting paired with a moderate intellectual thrust. Some items are overly simplified and almost nothing is completely explained, but I don't expect anyone will wander in looking for the whole picture. The leads (Stanley Tucci, Bettany, Spacey, and Quinto) carry the plot along well, and the film builds to a nice culmination as the 108 minutes whisk by. The fact that everyone isn't already aware of how our economy became troubled is a shame, but the idea that there's still time to get informed is a minor miracle.

Grade: A-