Anybody who goes into Margin Call hoping to see investment bankers raked over the coals will be disappointed to find that this movie isn't a cinematic battle cry for all those Occupy Wall Street kids. In fact, this film actually dares to give a sympathetic point of view to the fat cats who set the late-2000s global-recession ball rolling.
Even though Margin Call is set in an unnamed New York firm during a frazzling 24 hours, the story is about the calm before the storm. The whole movie is told in hushed and quiet tones, a sharp contrast to the balls-out hysteria the characters fear will soon be unleashed. All this talk of an impending, worldwide clusterfuck begins after a young numbers crusher, Peter Sullivan (producer Zachary Quinto), discovers problems on a project handed to him by his former risk-management boss (Stanley Tucci), who had been laid off and escorted out of the building earlier in the day.
Sullivan discovers that the company he works for is overleveraged, and it'll be a calamity for both the firm and the whole damn global economic system. This wakes up Sullivan's superiors—including Kevin Spacey's generally decent veteran manager, Simon Baker's cunning exec and Jeremy Irons' snake oil-selling chairman—who scramble in the wee hours for a face- (and ass-)saving plan.
First-time writer/ director J.C. Chandor appears to relish making a Wall Street thriller in which there are no clear heroes or villains or absurdly heightened suspense, and in which all the action comes from jargon-filled convos uttered across conference tables. (If you have trouble following what they're saying, don't worry—even the higher-ups can't comprehend the numbers-talk, and tell the analysts to speak to them like they're children.) Thankfully, Chandor has actors (including Paul Bettany and Demi Moore, who play cool-headed but quietly panicking employees) who visibly rejoice along with him, giving credible, competent turns even when the dialogue begins to sound like Mamet-lite: Nearly every character has a moment when he or she says "Fuck me!" over and over.
There are moments where Chandor's direction can be too blatantly on the nose—such as playing over the end credits the sound of a character digging a hole. Nevertheless, Margin Call effectively portrays these masters of the universe as flawed folk who were just as ill-informed, unaware and ultimately scared of losing it all as the general public. Whether the general public will feel sympathetic is another question.