With Americans still suffering the effects of the 2008 financial crisis, filmmakers have been trying to cash in with documentaries and made-for-TV films that attempt to explain the causes of the near meltdown. First-time feature writer and director J.C. Chandor brings audiences the first narrative feature to tackle the debacle directly in a spare, focused, star-laden vehicle that attempts to humanize, rather than demonize, the players in this catastrophe (well, most of them anyway).
Co-producer Zachary Quinto stars as a young risk assessment analyst who discovers late one night that the investment bank he works for has accumulated so many toxic assets that its current projected losses exceed the value of the firm. His superiors call an emergency meeting that night and debate whether they should sell off as much as they can at the opening market bell, even though they know the assets they would be selling are practically worthless.
Chandor largely avoids caricaturing his subjects, but he describes all the sympathetic bankers as people who entered or stayed with the profession for the money, not because they actually enjoyed creating capital. One risk assessment manager speaks wistfully of when he helped build a bridge that saved people time and money. Another expresses a desire to dig ditches, since at least his ditches will last, unlike the bank's ephemeral assets.
Margin Call (rated R for liberal amounts of coarse language) boasts an impressive portfolio of performers, getting nuanced and multi-layered performances from Kevin Spacey, Paul Bettany, and the underappreciated Stanley Tucci. A slithering Jeremy Irons dominates his few scenes as the ruthless CEO determined to save his company, no matter what the ethical cost.
Chandor directs at least some of the meltdown blame to the American people with one manager's snarky remark that Americans expect to live like kings and people like him make that possible. Frank DeMarco's cinematography has a hyper-realistic look, almost like a professional home movie, creating that feeling of immediacy and wincing familiarity with a past event that is never quite far enough away.