Margin Call (2011) is a film with a mission, which it accomplishes succinctly and powerfully. Set almost entirely within the opulent confines of a high finance investment bank in New York City, this subdued, grim drama recounts the crucial early hours of the world financial crisis of 2008. On a day of massive layoffs at the company, young risk assessment analyst Peter Sullivan (Zachary Quinto) watches as his mentor, Eric Dale (Stanley Tucci), is given his walking papers and escorted from the building. Before Dale leaves, however, he hands off a thumbdrive full of files to Peter, with a warning to be careful. The drive contains financial projections, and Sullivan works the numbers after hours, realizing that they paint a monumentally bleak picture for the company’s financial future — and by extension, the market as a whole. He escalates his findings up the chain of command, setting off a frantic overnight strategy session wherein the company plans its reaction to the projections, leveraging its resources to its best possible advantage.
I found it uniquely compelling, a too-late cautionary tale that puts a critical human face to the people (mostly men) who gamble with the world’s financial fate every day. The cast is uniformly solid, with Paul Bettany, Kevin Spacey, and Jeremy Irons standing out — the latter, memorably, as the firm’s mercilessly cavalier leader. There’s something of a preaching-to-the-choir vibe to the piece; it doesn’t exactly say anything that anyone paying attention hasn’t already absorbed through the news. But it does dramatize its points effectively, and is as even-handed in its criticism as the subject allows, pointing fingers at the rich and powerful, but also suggesting that, in a way, the American dream by its very nature makes us all tacitly complicit. A solid film, marked by some gorgeously stark cinematography, that I suspect will serve as a time capsule of the era.