Hold on tight to your severance package

Margin Call is Shakespearan in several outstanding ways. It takes place mainly on the trading floor of an investment firm. Four out of five people get sacked. Why? Nobody seems to know. It’s the economy. One of the first to be sacked is the manager of risk assessment (Stanley Tucci). If guys like him get fired first, something is up. On his way to the elevator, he hands over an USB stick to a low-level analyst (Zachary Quinto) and tells him that there is something suspicious on it, but he can’t quite figure it out. The young analyst can, and it’s looking bad. The firm seems to go bankrupt in the next few days, and nobody is able to stop it unless the financial market will take a worldwide dive while the firm will be safe. This makes getting sacked look alluring. The mechanism that lies at the core of the problem is explained at least twice in the movie, but did I get it? Not really. We have here movie history’s first McGuffin that is explained, but not understood. It doesn’t need to be, because neither do the main characters.

That catastrophic news travels up the chain of command. It’s amazing how clueless these guys are. The analyst’s boss (Paul Bettany) understands so little that he works as a go-getter for the firm. His boss, responsible for the trade floor (Kevin Spacey), has worked for the same firm for all of 40 years, but is clueless as to what all the charts and formulas mean. His boss (Simon Baker) and the chief analyst (Demi Moore) are those who will have to explain that imminent crash to the senior partners and the CEO (Jeremy Irons). None of them understands it either, and they have to invite the Quinto character to explain it once again. The CEO doesn’t get it, and in a priceless scene, Irons tells him with a smile: “Explain it to me as you would to a child. Or to a retriever.” That scene is priceless. Not one guy sees farther than the edge of his desk. If you listen carefully to the dialogues, you’ll hear a lot of questions asked, and the response is either “I don’t know” or another question. What does that tell you about those guys?

I’ve made it sound like people are nervous and in a hurry. Not so. There are secret meetings, blocked phone calls, sideways glances, but no shouting matches or fistfights. A movie that reminds us that an attaboy can mean ruin does not need to show a single drop of blood. The tension builds because those who sort of know what will happen have no power to decide, while those who have sit around a mahogany table and have no clue as to the consequences of their decisions. The whole movie takes place within 24 hours and does not contain one single weak minute.

When I say it’s Shakespearan, I also mean the cast. Kevin Spacey has done his Buckingham and his Richard III, and his role here is only three doors down from Glengarry Glen Ross, but with a whole different pay grade; Jeremy Irons must have done a lot of the bard on stage, but I remember him best from The Merchant of Venice. I’ll give Paul Bettany the benefit of the doubt, and playing Geoffrey Chaucer is close enough. The concept of the movie – the decline of an enterprise, if not of a whole nation caused by the implication of a flawed idea – is pretty close to King Lear. This is an ensemble piece, and they don’t come much better than that.

There are no heroes and no villains. (If you want villains, go see Inside Job, a very good documentary, and the other side of the same coin.) It’s just that nobody really seems to see the whole picture, and the rest is office politics. Tucci hands over his information out of concern for the firm, not in order to take revenge for being sacked. Spacey is reluctant to sell stuff that everybody knows has no longer any value, but considers doing it anyway. Irons is not greedy; he is simply responsible for the survival of the company, but knows that he will fail at least partly. He has to make the crucial decision: should they keep the junk papers, do nothing and thereby destroy the firm, or should they sell all of it to unknowing buyers and let global economy crash? Hmmm… Tough one. Listen to Irons when he tells Spacey why he thinks he has made the right call. It’s one of the best monologues I can remember. David Mamet should turn green with envy.

Maybe the financial crisis started this way, maybe not. It doesn’t really matter. Maybe a few firms were confronted with a similar problem, and the ones responsible acted the way they thought best. Either way, there were casualties, and not just the obvious ones. I don’t understand the ending fully, but I find it scary. I guess it’s about loyalty, but that is such a dangerous commodity in this movie. It’s a damn tragedy, and Margin Call is only the beginning. We haven’t seen the end of it. (by mege1)

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