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Margin Call

Year: 2011
Production Co: Before The Door Pictures
Director: J C Chandor
Writer: J C Chandor
Cast: Zachary Quinto, Kevin Spacey, Paul Bettany, Jeremy Irons, Demi Moore, Stanley Tucci, Mary McDonnell, Penn Badgley, Simon Baker

Margin Call is one of those movies that makes you realise that for all the bluster about how creatively bankrupt Hollywood is, few movies reach screens without working on some level.

As many a blogger and film writer has no doubt commented on, the most challenging aspect of the film is how to make a bunch of people sitting around in offices looking at computer screens and having meetings dramatic.

There's nothing to portray such drama except the tones and nuances of dialogue and the emotion of the actors delivering it, and it's all done without a shred of hysteria or over-acting. Other versions of the film – either where the actors overperformed and turned it into pantomime or where watching people look at screen bored us stiff – wouldn't have made it this far.

It's probably impossible to pin the 2008 global financial crisis down to a single company, analyst, commodity, broker or event, but Margin Call makes it as believable and digestible as you hope without mentioning a single number. A large financial institution is facing the latest round of layoffs, and one such investment banker (Tucci) has unearthed some disturbing numbers in the company's operations – parameters it shouldn't go outside but which it has. On his way out the door he hands junior broker Peter (Quinto) a USB key telling him he might want to look into it.

When everybody's closing up and going to bars for the night, Peter loads the data up and is horrified by what he sees – the parameters the company's gone outside could conceivably bring the whole operation down. Various and ever-higher levels of overseers, managers and even the exalted British Chairman (Irons) are gradually bought back in to work over the course of the night to decide how to deal with the problem.

It's kind of scary and kind of exciting to see the decision made that affected the real world (and plunged it into four years of economic turmoil). A company-wide sales drive is ordered, where brokers are to hit the phones and offload all the bad finance before anybody knows how toxic it is rather than take the hit that will send the company belly up.

In historical terms it's a horror story, where a few rich men (and a scattering of women) can sit in a boardroom in the middle of the night and decide whether to put themselves out of a job or flood the earth with economic poison and make everyone suffer.

And it's all conveyed with gestures, words, a minimum of jargon (but enough to follow if you know the basics of the GFC) and a rare understated verve. It's an actor's piece, and the talent writer/director Chandor attracted make mincemeat of it. Thrilling and accomplished.

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