Friday, February 17, 2012

Movie – Margin Call (2011)

It has often been said that an Oscar nomination can have a huge impact on a film, especially if it did not get much notice beforehand.  Margin Call was nominated for a Best Original Screenplay Oscar for J.C. Chandor’s writing.  While this is hardly a low budget, independent film, it did kind of fly under the radar.  I doubt I would have ever seen it, had it not received the nomination.  Great writing is probably more important to me than any other single aspect of a movie, so even though the plot of Margin Call didn’t sound that exciting, I gave it a try.  I am very glad I did.  I ended up enjoying it quite a bit and it may even make my list of the top 10 films of 2011.

This movie is a great look about how decisions on important information are made at all the different levels in a chain of command from an analyst at an investment firm right up to the CEO.  Although I’ve never worked in that kind of job, as a Program/Project Manager I have sat in on meetings at all levels of large organizations.  I can tell you that the group dynamics in this film are spot on.

I’m going to do something a little different.  There are nine major characters in the film; ten if you count Mary McDonnell’s brief appearance as Spacey’s ex-wife.  Instead of telling you who is playing them, then referring to them by their character names for the rest of the post, I am going to refer to them by their real names throughout.  Hopefully this will make it easier to follow who is doing what to whom.

Zachary Quinto (Heroes, Star Trek) and Penn Badgley (Easy A) are young analysts at an investment firm.  The film opens with HR people coming to “downsize” a number of people there.  It turns out their boss, played by Stanley Tucci (Big Night, Easy A), is one of those people.  He was in the middle of working on something important, so as he is leaving he hands it to Quinto and asks him to see if he can complete it.  He tells him to be careful, though.

Quinto works late into the evening and finally figures out that his firm is in massive trouble.  They have been investing in high risk, high yield properties and it is coming back to bite them big time.  It is so bad that it will literally destroy this more than 100 year old company in a matter of weeks, maybe even days.  He calls Tucci’s boss, now his boss by default.  This man is played by Paul Bettany (A Beautiful Mind).  He and Badgley come back into the office and the three go over what Quinto has found.  They can’t get in touch with Tucci because his phone service was shut off when he was fired and he hasn’t gone home yet.

Bettany calls his boss, played by Kevin Spacey.  Spacey is the head of the whole trading area.  Once he believes, he calls his boss, a young punk played by Simon Baker, who is the president of the firm.  Baker also brings in the head of the entire Risk Management department (Demi Moore) and the head of Legal (Aasif Mandvi).  Baker is demanding an immediate answer on whether these findings are accurate.  Quinto, Badgley, Bettany, and Spacey are all in the meeting, too.  Moore and Mandvi try to explain that they need time to sort through the figures to see if they can confirm how bad things are about to get.  Baker asks Quinto about his background in order to challenge his ability to have done the analysis correctly.  Quinto explains that he got his degrees in orbital mechanics and gravitational theory.  My favorite lines come when Baker says, “So you’re literally a rocket scientist.  What are you doing here?” and Quinto says “Because the pay is a lot better.”  Baker tells them to meet back in one hour.  He calls the CEO, played by Jeremy Irons.

By three in the morning there is a full blown Partners’ meeting going on with all the huge movers and shakers…and the bottom of the food chain analysts.  Irons puts Quinto on the spot by ignoring Baker and asking Quinto to explain his findings “as if you were talking to a child.”  This is Quinto’s boss’ boss’ boss’ boss’ boss that he is talking to and it’s his findings that have caused this massive response.  If he’s wrong, he’s personally destroyed.  If he’s right, he’s telling the CEO the firm is probably destroyed.  Some people would be peeing in their pants right about then.

The CEO has to decide if his firm is going to try to “do the right thing” or if they should sell everything they can before people start to discover the truth.  That would mean dumping worthless investments on their customers, though.  It would also mean hammering the entire investment market as a whole, which could have repercussions for years.  Spacey, who has been with the firm for more than 30 years, just can’t stomach that.  It’s his traders that will have to be making these sales, though, so he has to be onboard.  Irons has a couple of great speeches as he is talking about the really big picture.

While all this is going on, there are also subplots with trying to get Tucci back in the building because he knows too much, and with a survivalist’s struggle between Baker and Moore.  It’s her risk strategies and his policies that have put the firm in the position they are in.  Even if the firm somehow survives, one or both of them are going to have to be scapegoated for the investors.

The acting in the film is topnotch, especially Quinto, Spacey, and Irons.  The latter was a last minute replacement for Ben Kingsley, but I couldn’t imagine anyone else in the role after seeing Irons’ performance.  Just like Kingsley in Hugo, Irons’ performance in this film also went un-nominated by the Academy.  There are several moments during the film when you wonder just how far someone might go to either protect themselves or to cover up what is happening.  Those moments are well played.

The entire movie takes place over the course of 36 hours, with most of it focusing on the through-the-night reaction from the firm’s leaders.  The group dynamics are very interesting, with the various characters given distinctive and separate personalities.  While I am not placing it at the same level as 12 Angry Men, the focus on group dynamics and a feeling of people trapped until they can come to a decision certainly does evoke it.

You may think this movie sounds boring.  I thought the same thing before I saw it and I was wrong.  Unless you need movies to have lots of physical action, then I highly recommend this film.

Chip’s Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

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  1. I really liked the movie, as well! I thought the script was very good, a little bit confusing when it came to business data, but that was expected! As I said in my review, this a characters movie- the focus is on them and their interaction. Spacey and Irons were, indeed, fantastic, and I do have a soft spot for Bettany, so I'll mention him, too. Great post Chip!

  2. @Aziza - I just read your post on it. I agree that the acting was quite good. Thanks for your comments.