October 20, 2011


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Written by: Mitch Salem
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MARGIN CALL:  Worth A Ticket – The Real Sequel to”Wall Street”


MARGIN CALL is smarter and more gripping than Moneyball and The Ides of March combined–and those are two smart, gripping movies.  However, the superb ensemble cast of Margin Call doesn’t boast a name as instantly bankable as Brad Pitt’s or George Clooney’s, so the film needs–and deserves–to be sought out.

The place is Wall Street, and the time is that precise moment when it suddenly became clear to a very few people that the world financial system had a staggeringly serious problem.  Margin Call isn’t a documentary about the crisis (for that, see the excellent Inside Job), and it’s not, unlike HBO’s recent Too Big To Fail, based on a specific true story.  It’s triumphantly fictional, with a brilliant script by first-time writer/director J.C. Chandor that illuminates the situation without ever slowing down to plod through the specifics (it’s a running joke in the movie that even the people who make their living from these complex financial products don’t remotely understand them).


Although Margin Call is clearly inspired by the stories of Lehman Brothers and the other investment banks that packaged high-risk mortgage debts for sale to buyers who were too greedy to stay away, it’s largely about the process of crisis itself, the ways people react to the end of their particular world, and how they behave when they have a chance to save themselves at the expense of others.   In Chandor’s script, a fired bank executive (Stanley Tucci) gives a low-level analyst (Zachary Quinto, also one of the lead producers) data showing that the bank’s bubble of assets is about to burst.  The movie traces how, in the course of a single long night’s journey into day, this information makes its way up the chain of command, to successively higher executives played by Paul Bettany, Simon Baker, Kevin Spacey, Demi Moore, and ultimately the master of this universe, Jeremy Irons.  First, there is the stumbling attempt to comprehend what’s happening–then the focused, ruthless hunt for a way to, above all, survive.


With its harsh, eloquent speeches about loyalty and greed, and its largely male environment of players who sardonically and savagely scheme against each other, Margin Call begs comparison with David Mamet, and specifically with Glengarry Glen Ross.  The comparisons are apt, and Chandor’s dialogue stands up to the competition, but Margin doesn’t have Mamet’s agenda of describing manhood (or, despite some four-letter words, his spectacular flair for profanity).  These men are less overtly desperate than Mamet’s; they’re friendly, even courtly, as they slash each other’s throats.  These are the guys who did get the good leads, and now they’ll do virtually anything to hold on to them.


The cast is the ensemble of the year, handled by Chandor with perfect balance.  Kevin Spacey, as an old hand at the bank who understands both convenience and conscience, almost redeems the terrible movies he’s done over the past decade–he leaves behind all his glib mannerisms and cuts down to his character’s bone.  Irons, on the other hand, is fabulously superficial; he’s the man who is not, under any circumstances, going to lose his private helicopter.   Bettany, Baker and Moore provide other steps on the road to corporate hell, while Quinto and Penn Badgley, as a young man less smart than he thinks he is, represent the newcomers almost instantly out of their depth.  Tucci has the emotionally richest part (none of these people have private lives, not because they’re thinly drawn, but because in this context it just doesn’t matter), and he manages to goes to town with it and yet not chew the scenery.

The film is low-key and low-budget, but beautifully put together.  Frank G. DeMarco’s photography captures the increasing wear and tear of that endless night within the bank’s elegant surroundings, while Pete Beaudreau’s editing knows when to allow the characters some space and when to leap into the hurtling pace of a thriller.

Margin Call originally premiered at Sundance in January, and against the odds, it’s become only more topical in the last few weeks:  it lays bare the mindset that Occupy Wall Street and its brethren are furiously opposing.  With any luck, that will help the fortunes of a movie that might otherwise be dismissed as a bunch of well-dressed, well-educated, well-spoken people exchanging snappy dialogue in board rooms.  Margin Call has earned the luck; it’s an extraordinary piece of work.

About the Author

Mitch Salem
MITCH SALEM has worked on the business side of the entertainment industry for 20 years, as a senior business affairs executive and attorney for such companies as NBC, ABC, USA, Syfy, Bravo, and BermanBraun Productions, and before that, at the NY law firm of Weil, Gotshal & Manges. During all that, he has more or less constantly been going to the movies and watching TV, and writing about both since the 1980s. His film reviews also currently appear on and In addition, he is co-writer of an episode of the television series "Felicity."