Margin Call

Jeremy Irons in Margin Call


A movie for every day of the year – a good one



6 March


Alan Greenspan born, 1926

On this day in 1926, the economist Alan Greenspan was born in New York City. His father was a stockbroker and analyst but Alan initially seemed to be heading towards a career in music, studying clarinet at Juilliard, playing with Woody Herman’s band, before switching to economics. He gained a bachelor’s and a master’s in economics before becoming an analyst, then a consultant. In 1974 he was appointed by President Gerald Ford as Chairman of the Council of Economic Advisers. Greenspan was a member of the Group of Thirty (wise men of economics, essentially) in 1984 before becoming chairman of the Federal Reserve in 1987, a position he held until just before his 80th birthday in 2006. Greenspan was a monetarist, a rationalist and a follower of Ayn Rand, but he was first and foremost a numbers man. When the figures didn’t match the theory, it was the theory that was wrong. He admitted in congressional testimony in 2008, after the worst financial collapse since the great depression, that his belief in deregulation had been “shaken”.




Margin Call (2011, dir: JC Chandor)

Director/writer JC Chandor really seemed to come out of nowhere with this debut, a remarkable thriller about the financial collapse – who’d have thought such a thing possible – that boils everything down to one fateful night in one investment bank, where some geeky junior has suddenly realised that the numbers don’t add up and that fiduciary apocalypse beckons. The junior is a junior actor – Zachary Quinto – who spends the film accompanied by his more doltish chum Seth (Penn Badgley) who is there to explain any of the sticky stuff, of which there is remarkably little. The structure of Chandor’s film is remarkably simple – over the course of the night Badgley, Quinto and whoever they have picked up en route, are bussed from one meeting to another, constantly moving up the pecking order, from daily offices to executive suites, the plebeian to the patrician, the outer to the inner sanctum, up, up, up they go. At each level of this glass and steel edifice everyone has to get used to breathing a slightly more rarefied air. And there are a lot of levels. This is a film where all actors concerned seems to understand that what they’re doing is momentous; everyone is pulling out the good stuff. Early on we meet Stanley Tucci, as the lowest level of the big players, the guy who is fired in the opening scenes, shrugs and then goes home. Paul Bettany is the tic-driven, adrenaline-snorting salesman. Kevin Spacey is his superior, the first of the financial big players to make our stand-ins, Quinto and Badgley, a little loose bowelled, and the last who has any humanity (his dog is dying at home) left inside. Demi Moore plays another formidable executive, a woman in a man’s world who wears the glass ceiling almost as jewellery and so is not as frightening as the next guy up the ladder – Simon Baker, a brash street guy done good, a man who drank greed is good with his mother’s milk. We think we’re at the top already but then we go up one more, to meet Jeremy Irons, in the sort of role that Laurence Olivier would once have played, all affability and stiletto, the CEO of this mighty financial empire who has arrived at dawn in a helicopter like a bird of prey. It’s with Irons that the full dastardly logic of self-preservation plays out – he takes decisions that he knows will cause the market to collapse, but they will ensure that his firm will survive. It’s the small guy who is going to suffer, the same small guy who is left out of the reckoning when bonus season comes around. Chandor doesn’t rely on his viewer having even a slender grasp of economics to make this film work – it’s essentially a human drama about minnows awed by sharks. And doesn’t this world of big money look fantastic – the workers reduced to faceless drones while the fixtures and fittings have real character. A perfect film? Nearly. Maybe someday somebody will just tighten up the last third a touch, remove one of the too-many speeches that defend the way money guys do things, so it runs with the same pitiless speed as the first two thirds. Or maybe I’m just nitpicking. In a very short list of great films about money (Greed, Glengarry Glen Ross, Boiler Room, both the 1928 and 1983 L’Argent spring to mind), this is the best film about the 2008 crash, no question.



Why Watch?


  • The arrival of writer/director Chandor, fully formed
  • A great cast on top form
  • A thriller from finance – remarkable
  • John Paino’s formidable production design


© Steve Morrissey 2014



Margin Call – at Amazon





12 November 2012-11-12

Jeremy Irons in Margin Call

Out in the UK This Week

Margin Call (Paramount, cert 15, Blu-ray/DVD)

JC Chandor’s debut, and what a film, is about a Lehman Brothers’ (ish) bank hitting the skids. It’s the definitive Hollywood entertainment about the financial crash, a cool, glossy, edge-of-seat procedural about a night in the company of two low-level bank employees (Zachary Quinto, Penn Badgley) who are on duty at the point when a gigantic accounting error comes to light. Whereupon the problem is batted further and further up the heirarchy, until it reaches the top (a particularly dry and corrupt Jeremy Irons). The performances are in the ionosphere – Kevin Spacey, Jeremy Irons, Simon Baker, Demi Moore, Stanley Tucci and Paul Bettany all working hard to justify the huge salaries (of the actors, not the bankers). And if the message – that moving money around electronically is not as noble as making, you know, stuff – is hammered home a bit too forcefully, I for one was prepared to give a first-timer a pass. Which brings us to – how did Chandor get the cast? And what’s he going to do next?

Margin Call – at Amazon

The Giants (Artificial Eye, cert 15, DVD)

Beautifully shot and acted, this gem of the deadly pastoral genre is a River’s Edge-flavoured tale following three teenage lads through a long summer of thievery, joyriding and cannabis-farming among the inbreds of rural Belgium. The plot is full of genuine novelty and in Paul Bartel, oldest of the kids oscillating madly between child and almost-adult, it has a star of the future.

The Giants – at Amazon

Undefeated (Dogwoof, cert E, DVD)

“Young men of character, discipline and commitment end up winning in life and they end up winning in football.” The words of Memphis coach Bill Courtney, who tries to turn a nowheresville side into winners – and more importantly, men – in the Hoop Dreams-inflected documentary which won an Oscar earlier this year. Whether you like American football or not, you will like this film. It paints the picture of America that the world is still mad for – a country full of people with heart, who speak their mind, who are respectful and god-fearing rather than god-bothering. As for the film – it’s brilliant.

Undefeated – at Amazon

Cosmopolis (Entertainment One, cert 15, Blu-ray/DVD)

Just when you thought existential drama was dead, back comes David Cronenberg with a supercool, absurdist adaptation of Don DeLillo’s novel. which follows a Keanu-like billionaire (Robert Pattinson) on a long limo ride round a city falling apart, besieged by anti-globalisation protesters. Pattinson might or might not be much of an actor but he probably does know a thing or two about being found entirely attractive by women, so having sex with a succession of hot babes is probably no stretch for him. The sex also helps fill in the gaps between the existentialist non-sequitur dialogue and punctuates a film that is meant to be dull, blank, horizonless. It’s a hard film to get into, but it’s strangely rewarding once you do. Camus in a limo.

Cosmopolis – at Amazon

Trouble in Paradise (Eureka, cert PG, DVD)

Now restored and a defining example of “the Lubitsch touch”, the 1932 romantic comedy that helped found a Hollywood genre is a curiously timely tale of a grifter preying on the super-rich in the aftermath of the 1929 market crash. It’s considered Lubitsch’s best film and, considering it’s now 80 years old, it stands up remarkably well. The side players include Edward Everett Norton and C Aubrey Smith and they are proof of a tradition that continues to this day – that the support players are often far more interesting than the stars.

Trouble in Paradise – at Amazon

56 Up (Network, cert E, DVD)

Surely one of the most important TV programmes ever made, this unique documentary series has been checking in on its subjects every seven years since they were seven-year-olds in 1964. It proves the old Jesuit dictum – “give me a child for his first seven years and I will give you the man” – memorably in the case of the wide-eyed Paul Kligerman, who in 1964 asked “what does university mean?” He didn’t go. Michael Apted has been involved since its inception – he was a 23-year-old researcher on the first one and has directed all the others since, fitting his other job as a successful international movie director (Coal Miner’s Daughter and The World Is Not Enough, to name but two) round about. The participants are now 56 and Apsted finds himself asking them the question “Are you scared of getting old?”

56 Up – at Amazon

Friends with Kids (Lionsgate, cert 15, Blu-ray/DVD)

A woman with ticking-timebomb ovaries has a kid with her best male friend. Jennifer Westfeldt and Adam Scott play the convenience couple in this toxic rom-com sold on all the posters under the falsest of pretences. Jon Hamm, Kristen Wiig and Chris O’Dowd all feature heavily in the publicity but are barely in the film. The fact that Hamm is Westfeldt’s real-life partner suggests Westfeldt called in a few favours when it came to casting. Ironically Hamm’s favour doesn’t do her any – the film is overbalanced by these bigger names. But not as much as it is by the sour chemistry between Westfeldt and Scott. And to think she was part-responsible for Kissing Jessica Stein – the refreshing cult oddball romance from 2001.

Friends with Kids – at Amazon

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© Steve Morrissey 2012