On March 16, 1979, Paramount Pictures quietly released a pedestrian but capable drama, The China Syndrome, a fictional tale of safety cover-ups at a nuclear power plant. Twelve days later, the Three Mile Island nuclear accident turned the movie into box office gold. The film was instantly deemed "important," earning four Oscar nominations, including one for Best Picture.
More than three decades later, Margin Call may be the next China Syndrome. It certainly didn't forecast Occupy Wall Street--principal photography wrapped in the summer of 2010--but it comes awfully close. And if the current global financial crisis is remotely interesting to you, I can't recommend Margin Call enough.
Before I go much further, a caveat--in the 1990s, I worked for a large New York bank (Marine Midland) in the midst of a takeover by a larger Far East bank (Hong Kong Shanghai Banking Corp). I also worked for one of the nation's largest insurance and financial institutions (Transamerica). I have sat in a dozen boardrooms, where acquisitions and layoffs were the order of the day so that the man in the corner office could have more toys.
I felt a familiar chill as I watched Jeremy Irons' killer performance in Margin Call. His performance as master-of-the-universe John Tuld is his best since his 1990 Oscar-winning turn as the equally evil Claus von Bulow in Reversal of Fortune.
"I have learned one truism in all my years," says Irons' character. "To succeed, you must either be first, smart or cheat."
Audiences clearly have the upper hand as Margin Call begins. We know how it's going to end--global economies will be ruined, millions will be unemployed and visceral demonstrations will spill to the streets of the world's capitals.
First-time writer-director J.C. Chandor tells his story as historical fiction, not putting a name to the century-old investment firm on the brink of collapse in 2008. (Lehman Brothers? Hello?)
Margin Call's 100 minutes chronicles the 36-hour life and death of an investment bank, beginning with the all-too-familiar sacking of dozens of six-figured suits. One of the casualties, played perfectly by Stanley Tucci, passes a flash drive to an underling, warning him to "be careful." The junior associate plugs in some additional numbers to an embedded spreadsheet and concludes that the company's assets are on a highway to shittown. The associate, in a fine performance by Zachary Quinto, holds a doctorate from MIT in aerospace engineering. So, yes, that would make him a rocket scientist.
The only option, the firm's top executives conclude, is to limit their own carnage at the expense of everyone else. A running, but not-so-funny joke is that the higher the corporate ladder goes, the less-abled the executives are to interpret the graphs and charts that forecast their fate. It's the most accurate portrayal of a corporate boardroom I have ever seen on film.
Unfortunately Chandor can't seem to help himself by injecting too many David Mamet-like speeches, complete with "Fuck me" and "Fuck you." Such scenes sheathe the characters as smug jerks rather than the naive charlatans they truly are.
In a slim piece of irony, Margin Call was produced on a limited budget of $3.4 million. Its box office return should be much more significant.
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