The first two reviews I read of J.C. Chandor’s new financial-meltdown drama “Margin Call” were startling in their incongruity, at least with regard to the current events in downtown Manhattan. David Edelstein, in New York magazine: “[T]he fine men and women dug in downtown need to get themselves a big screen, a projector, and a few thousand tubs of popcorn, because J.C. Chandor’s “Margin Call” is to Occupy Wall Street what “The China Syndrome” was to Three Mile Island: the fiction that will make it, here in Movie-Mad America, ever so much more real.” My colleague Melissa Anderson, meanwhile, in the Village Voice: “Chandor’s debut feature audaciously asks us to empathize with obscenely overpaid risk analysts and their bosses, a gambit that fails not only because of what’s happening at Zuccotti Park, but largely because his characters are little more than mouthpieces for blunt speechifying and Mamet-like outbursts.” So which is it? A field-trip worthy cinematic accompaniment to the cause, or a tone-deaf apologia for those in its sights?
The film’s primary gift is that it is neither. Sure, it’s easy to demonize the entirety of the financial sector, to presume that every single man or woman who draws a paycheck from a Wall Street firm is a monocled, mustache-twirling plutocrat – and that’s an understandable conclusion to jump to when they drink champagne on balconies overlooking the protest. But “Margin Call” reminds us that there were actual people in those skyscrapers when the toxic assets hit the fan, and some of them knew the risks they were taking (“We went all in on this one”). Chandor doesn’t apologize for them, and his attempts to humanize them are a bit broad at times (one is even given a dying dog, for heaven’s sake). But he at least allows the situation some complexity. “I just don’t know how we f****d this up quite so much,” wonders Kevin Spacey’s middle manager. The big man in charge has a blunt answer for that question: “We can’t help ourselves.”
The finest running joke in “Margin Call” is that no one in a position of authority has the vaguest idea of what any of the numbers actually mean. Zachary Quinto’s risk management analyst has to keep explaining what the figures and formulas portend. (He has a master’s degree from MIT; it literally takes a rocket scientist to understand this stuff). As he brings the alarming numerical model of the upcoming moment of reckoning to each ascending superior, and each one shrugs it off with an apologetic shuffle, the film poses its most intriguing question: Do they not understand what they’re doing because it’s too complicated, or do they not understand because they don’t want to know?