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14 January 2012

"What Is Right Can Take on Multiple Interpretations"

When I saw the trailer for J.C. Chandor's film Margin Call a few weeks ago, my first reaction was, not another movie about the evils of capitalism. To be fair, the two most recent such films were both documentaries and one by Michael Moore, so I decided to give Margin Call a shot, not least because with Kevin Spacey, Paul Bettany and Jeremy Irons, it seemed to have a fairly solid cast.

The movie centres around a crucial 24-hour period in the life of a Lehman Brothers-like investment bank. It's Manhattan in 2008 and the shit is about to hit the fan, or, as CEO John Tuld (Irons) more delicately puts it, "the music is about to stop." At first though, we just see some suited ladies coming in to the bank, taking aside various employees to talk to them. Initially, I thought they might be the feds but it turns out they are consultants brought in to fire a lot of employees, including Eric Dale (Stanley Tucci), who is somewhat concerned about some important data he has been working on. He is ushered from the building by security but before he leaves, he manages to hand over a data stick to one of his analysts, Peter Sullivan (Zachary Quinto), telling him to "be careful." Sullivan looks at some of the models, staying late to finish off what Dale started, and the news isn't good: the company is holding some very dodgy positions in sub-prime and other crappy mortgages.

He tells his buddy Seth (Penn Badgley) and Dale's boss Will Emerson (Bettany), and slowly the message of "we're screwed" passes up through trading director Sam Rogers (Spacey) and two risk senior partners (Simon Baker and Demi Moore) to Tuld himself, as they try to decide what to do. The only real option, though, is to sell as much of their dodgy holdings as possible the following morning before their clients and the other banks realise something is up, a move that will probably kill the traders' careers because the people they screw over will never buy from them again and will, of course, tell all their friends.

Even though you know what's coming, the film is suspenseful and engaging, partly because we grow to care about or at least sympathise with some of the characters, although others are more stereotypical caricatures. Sullivan is a handsome and well-intentioned if sometimes naive former MIT propulsion expert ("so you are a rocket scientist"). Number crunching is the same wherever you do it so you might as well try to make some more money, he says. He's a nice, hard-working guy, though. Spacey's character Rogers is also big on doing the right thing, although clearly his job is his whole life; as the film closes, we see him trying to bury his just-deceased, much-loved dog in the garden of his estranged ex-wife. His world has just collapsed and he doesn't even have anyone to tell. Emerson is more ambiguous: he seems quite cold and ruthless throughout, not really caring that Dale and the others had to lose their jobs as long as his own was safe, and talking about spending a large chunk of money on booze, drugs and strippers and billing it all to clients. But when asked if he can be relied on to lead the troops in selling the bad holdings if Rogers chickens out, he just says that he's sure Rogers will do the right thing. "What is right can take on multiple interpretations," warns Jared Cohen (Baker), one of the characters on the greedier, self-aggrandising side of the spectrum.

Then there is Seth, who is a 23-year-old analyst, who is obsessed with money (he is played by Penn Badgley, who also plays Dan Humphrey in Gossip Girl). He is the kind of guy who asks his boss--and his boss's boss--what their salaries are and diverts a 1am search for his former boss to a strip bar. He's the kind of guy who watched Wall Street on DVD for the first time while at university in the mid-noughties and decided that Gordon Gecko was exactly the person he wanted to be when he grew up (I should know; there were plenty of guys like that at St Jocks'). Needless to say, when he realises he's probably going to get fired--despite his solid performance for the company and all his help during the 24 hours from hell--and goes to the bathroom to cry, we don't feel very sorry for him. "This is all I've ever wanted to do," he tells an unsympathetic Cohen.

Overall, then, there are good and bad eggs in this company, just like in every other company. Margin Call manages to convey this effectively without too many detours into the characters' personal lives. A scene involving Sullivan and an ex-girlfriend (played by Meryl Streep's daughter) was apparently cut from the final version, perhaps to keep this tight focus. With good performances from Spacey and Irons and, to a lesser extent, Bettany, the film is definitely worth checking out--if you haven't already seen enough movies about the banking crisis, of course.

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