Best of all was Charles Ferguson's Oscar-winning documentary Inside Job, an accessible, long-lensed view of a complex topic and its 30-year trajectory from Ronald Reagan's 1980s-era laissez-faire, trickle-down economics to the Clinton administration's repealing of the Glass Steagall Act to the further relaxing of financial regulations and enforcement in the George W. Bush era to the unfortunate post-crash, business-as-usual hiring of President Obama's economic team. Yet, as effective as Inside Job was in explaining how the meltdown occurred, it didn't give us an emotional access point (beyond outright anger) or put a human face to the people behind the disaster. Who are these guys? And do they even care that they have altered millions of lives via largely nefarious if not outright illegal actions?
Enter Margin Call, writer/director J.C. Chandor's compelling look at a fictional Wall Street firm that could easily stand in for the now-defunct Lehman Brothers. (Margin Call snuck into exactly one theater — AMC Newport — last week; and it looks like it will close after tomorrow's screenings — that'd be Thursday, Nov. 20 — so get there while you can. For times, click here.) Chandor's narrative takes place over the course 24 hours in 2008 as the firm begins to lay off dozens of its employees — a move that unexpectedly leads one of the remaining upstarts (Star Trek's Zachary Quinto) in the “risk assessment” division (an oxymoron if there ever was one) to reveal that the company is nearing the brink of disaster. Without getting into too much dissonance-inducing detail (for both his co-workers and the audience), he explains that the company's various manipulations of financial instruments like credit default swaps have resulted in a perilous situation that can no longer be hidden from view.
What follows is a late-hours scramble to figure out how the company can avert disaster, a situation that reveals just how little most of these seemingly smart men — and they're almost all men — know about the details of how it has come to this point and how the layers of bureaucracy and power impact decisions. These people know only one thing for sure: money must be made, and it certainly can't be lost (which, in this case, means knowingly selling crap to its clients and thereby triggering the resulting meltdown).
Armed with an excellent cast (including Kevin Spacey, Stanley Tucci, Simon Baker, Paul Bettany and, as the company's morally slippery CEO, Jeremy Irons), the impressively even-handed Margin Call turns this scenario into a surprisingly tension-riddled thriller in which, for better or worse, those involved are portrayed as actual flesh-and-blood human beings.