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Review: Margin Call (2011)

Margin Call (2011)

Directed by: J.C. Chandor

Premise: Set at the beginning of the 2008 financial crisis, risk analysis and executives at a major investment bank realize that the firm is headed for a collapse and try to find a solution.

What Works: One of the recent trends in movies over the past few years has been the subgenre of recession cinema. Some of these pictures deal with the experiences of those losing jobs or homes, such as Up in the Air, while others dramatize the actions of major players in the political and financial world. Margin Call fits into the latter category and even though it is entirely fictionalized, this picture succeeds in ways that similar films like Too Big To Fail or Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps fell short. Although Margin Call is not as in depth as those films in terms of the financial details, it does its job as a dramatization far more effectively. (The kinds of economic and political details that some critics may wrongfully demand from a film like this are much better addressed in the documentary form, and have been in Inside Job and Client 9.) A dramatization of something as academic and mathematical as the 2008 financial collapse must be about the human issues and Margin Call does exactly that. The film presents a group of characters at various levels of the bank’s hierarchy, from risk analysts up to the bank president, and within the twenty-four hours in which the story takes place these people are confronted with serious ethical challenges in which issues like greed, ambition, integrity, and loyalty come into play. This comes out especially well through the characters played by Kevin Spacey and Jeremy Irons. Spacey realizes the ethical implications of all this while Irons, in what is an extraordinary performance, embodies corporate survivalism and will sink his customers and even the whole economy in order to save the firm. Margin Call is ultimately about the relationship between individuals and financial institutions, and the arbitrary way those individuals might be rewarded or destroyed based on little more than circumstance.

What Doesn’t: Margin Call’s take on the economic crisis is limited to Wall Street and in that there is a critique worth considering. The 2008 economic collapse has had repercussions that reach well beyond Wall Street but films like Margin Call create and reinforce a narrative of the event that emphasizes the experience of privileged, white collar elites at the expense of excluding the way it impacted the underclasses. Margin Call is about the specific mechanics and culture of a corporate institution so this is criticizing it for something that is simply beyond the scope of the story. But it is nevertheless part of a broader trend in recession cinema that divorces bourgeois culprits from proletariat victims.

Bottom Line: Margin Call’s layered and sophisticated portrait of corporate culture and its intelligent and complex ethical subtext makes this film one of the most impressive dramatizations about capitalism in the post-TARP era.

Episode: #372 (January 22, 2012)