Into Thin Air: J.C. Chandor’s Margin Call

Zachary Quinto and Penn Badgley as young analysts

Reviewed in this essay: Margin Call, written and directed by J.C. Chandor. Starring Zachary Quinto, Jeremy Irons, Paul Bettany, Kevin Spacey, Demi Moore, and Stanley Tucci. Running Time: 107 minutes. Available now on Blu-Ray and DVD.

In Michael Lewis’ 1989 memoir Liar’s Poker, he described the idea of “jamming bonds”: when you knew your bank had in its books poorly performing securities, you tried to get a client to buy them, lying to them in order to convince them that they were actually a good investment. This revealed, for Lewis, a fundamental paradox at the heart of investment banking: a bank’s primary interest was to protect its own financial health, not that of its clients, despite the fact that it was the clients who gave the bank their money to invest. When crisis arose, the bank would try to foist its bad bets onto the dupes it did business with.

A morosely defiant Kevin Spacey

It is precisely this paradox that provides moral heft to Margin Call, J.C. Chandor’s engrossing look at the first 24 hours of the 2008 credit crisis. Zachary Quinto plays a young analyst who, late one night, discovers that his firm is dangerously levered to a host of bad securities. While these may look like assets to the rest of Wall Street now, they soon will be seen for the dumpster liabilities they are. The dilemma is clear: how to get the corrosive assets off the books before the rest of Wall Street can find out that the game of sub-prime musical chairs is about to stop?

Soon, the top brass is called in for a series of charged midnight meetings, and it is here that director Chandor gets to put into play a devilishly good cast. We thus get a somber Kevin Spacey, steeped in melancholy, as he prepares to railroad a lifetime worth of clients; Paul Bettany as a trader whose resentment at being past up for promotion fuels his disgust for anti-corporate populism (“fuck normal people!”). And Demi Moore and Simon Baker as taciturn upper managers who know only one of them will survive the night with a job. The mostly silent Baker is especially chilling as someone who is not simply unwilling, but indeed resolutely, almost autistically, unable to produce empathy.

The suave menace of power: Jeremy Irons as ubermensch CEO

Yet the greatest round of praise must surely go to Jeremy Irons, who as the firm’s CEO swoops in on his private helicopter to set the wheels of corporate survival in motion. Irons, all sharp eyes and glinting cheekbones, cuts through his scenes with suave menace. He delivers his lines with exacting purpose, as if not wanting to waste a single breath. The economy of action, the casually assured aggression, are the outer jolts of the sheer, electric joy that resides underneath: the confidence of a man with genuine power.

If in the end Margin Call’s message is relatively modest- financial institutions protect their own interests, regardless of public good- its illumination of the moral toll such self interest inflicts on corporate foot soldiers is laudable. Echoing Lewis’ memoir, Margin Call reminds us of the cutting highs, and soul evacuating lows, that lay within the arbitraged wizardry of financial capitalism.