Though I doubt we’ll ever see it highlighted on Netflix, there has been an interesting film sub-genre emerging in the last few years. It might never be as prominent as the “Depression” era type of film (of which The Grapes of Wrath is the epitome), but in the last two years I’ve seen three films which could very well fall into the “Great Recession” genre. “Wall Street 2: Money Never Sleeps” and “The Company Men” are now joined by “Margin Call” in this genre (call it a financial drama if you want to define it more broadly), the last having been nominated for an Academy Award in original writing. That nomination is deserved, and I believe Margin Call to be the best of the three films, with The Company Men a close second.
Margin Call depicts the events, over a 24-hour period, at a fictional –and never named—brokerage, which discovers it is immensely over-levered with toxic mortgage debt. The firm’s brain trust gathers to figure a way out. Unlike Bear Stearns or Lehman Brothers, the firm realizes it’s in trouble ahead of anyone else and devises a way –a slightly unethical one—to survive.
At times, this movie had the feeling of a stage play. The locations are hardly more than boardrooms, offices, taxi cabs, and elevators, and there are a few soliloquies delivered. The writing is sharp, however, and though the sets are simple and the action little, the narrative and the characters are engaging throughout.
The cinematography is also compelling. Margin Call’s cast is quite recognizable: Demi Moore, Jeremy Irons, Kevin Spacey, Stanley Tucci, Zachary Quinto and Simon Baker. Though undoubtedly these stars had makeup applied for the film, the filmmakers seem to emphasize the vulnerability of the characters. Faces show cracks and crinkles and wear. The stress of the events and the lives these men and women lead does not leave them unblemished, and you can see that every time the camera lingers on a face.
If I had a criticism to make of this movie it would be that the characters all seem too self aware, as if they know they are going through the Great Recession. Every moment is dripping with portent, and these men and women behave in an a posteriori way when they should be more oblivious to what they are going through. In addition, they are all self-loathing. They like the money but seem to hate the lives they lead. They are soulless husks, which may be the belief filmmakers have about people in finance but is something that strikes me as unfair. Stocks, bonds, commodities, and other instruments get traded, and because of this interchange medical research, education, technology, and a vast array of other fields benefit. In bad times, everything takes a hit, but the general trend is upward, and I’m not sure most financiers, traders, and analysts view themselves the way the characters in Margin Call do, even when things go wrong.
That gripe aside, I thoroughly enjoyed this movie. It probably won’t achieve the legendary status the original Wall Street did and it doesn’t have that outrageous tone that made Boiler Room one of the best financial films of the last twenty years, but Margin Call is definitely worth seeing before the closing bell sounds.