At a key moment in “Margin Call,” the recent Wall Street thriller by newcomer J.C. Chandor, Paul Bettany’s (“Priest”) character gazes down from the ceiling of a Manhattan skyscraper, teetering on the brink of suicide. As he decides whether or not to follow through, he states, “No one really cares whether or not we die. The only thing that actually matters is if we fell or if we jumped.”

Margin Call

At the Michigan
Lionsgate


The movie relies heavily on these uniquely contemplative periods of questioning to set the tone for its view of Wall Street. That view, heavily grounded in the personalities of the people behind the scenes, is surprisingly sympathetic to the same guys society has learned to despise. For the first time, audiences experience the financial crisis through eyes of the individuals who knowingly engineered it.

Unlike ever before, this is a chance to see how they justified it to themselves when no one else was watching. And with that personal touch, the movie gets us — it makes us care about the characters, no matter how greedy, insecure or materialistic they may be.

The plot picks up in the early stages of the 2008 recession as an unnamed and fictional investment firm lays off 80 percent of its workforce. One of the many casualties is Eric Dale (Stanley Tucci, “Captain America: The First Avenger”), a risk analyst who stumbles upon a seemingly imperceptible flaw in the firm’s most profitable investment package. As he makes his way out of the building, he hands over his unfinished work to coworker Peter Sullivan (Zachary Quinto, “Star Trek”) with the simple parting message: “Be careful.”

After some number crunching, Sullivan finds out the unnoticeable crack, ignored by countless executives and senior managers, runs deep through the firm’s record books, signaling certain demise for the entire company.

The message gradually travels up the chain of command, starting at Will Emerson (Bettany) and ending at CEO John Tuld (Jeremy Irons, “Appaloosa”), who ultimately sells all of the worthless stock in order to prevent otherwise unavoidable bankruptcy. In between is head of trading Sam Rogers (Kevin Spacey, “American Beauty”), who serves as the sole moral voice in the entire film, the guy who understands the ethical implications of releasing millions of dollars’ worth of toxic assets into the market.

Though Irons delivers his most scene-stealing performance since “Reversal of Fortune,” his character is made all the more striking due to the portrayals by Bettany and Spacey. The three personalities onscreen come across as the perfect counterparts to each other: Tuld as the confident realist willing to accept the wicked nature of his profession, Rogers as the moralist struggling to fight apathy and Emerson as the careerist slowly losing belief in decency.

Chandor’s powerful script allows for this character interaction, without which this would just be another talky workplace drama. Instead, it’s a complex, multifaceted story carried by astute directing and brilliant acting. The dialogue doesn’t get stale and never strays too far into complex financial lingo, always managing to hold on to the audience despite the lengthy nature of some scenes.

At the end of the day, it’s all about the spectacle of watching unfold the decision-making process that lead to the largest financial crisis since the Great Depression. Expectedly, no one in the story is particularly likable. But for the 105 minutes this film runs, there’s never a chance to forget they really do have souls.

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