The film “Margin Call” is marketed as “based on a true story” though the film adamantly, even awkwardly, refuses to be about specific people in a specific place at a specific time. Even terms like “Wall Street,” “New York,” “politicians,” “crash” “2008” and “recession” are erased from the characters’ dialogue even though such distinctions are as clear in the audience’s mind as the filmmakers intended. The movie is not so much based on a true “story,” but rather based on true ideologies and motivations. Yes, people like these character existed—and still exist—but I’d say most movies contain such realistic characters, though other movies have the theatrics to put said characters in extraordinary circumstances. Fortunately, all the dads in America can breathe easily knowing “Margin Call” is not a 109-minute rant on the immorality and un-sustainability of unchecked, rampant capitalism. Nor is this even an Occupy Wall Street-geared movie. This is a re-enactment for those who don’t read books of how and why America’s, and thus the world’s, economic system seems to collapse every ten years. Granted, “Margin Call” may be based on a true story, but at what cost?
This treatise, er, movie…is really composed of three distinct acts (repeated confusion, lazy swearing and mild-mannered philosophizing) though not so distinct, fluid or colorful as to be intrinsically captivating. No less than three characters say some variation of “Speak English!” when confronted with the numerical language of stock trading. Fortunately, or regrettably, no charts are drawn and any analogies offered are promptly dismissed as remedial or inaccurate. The stockbrokers are not talking to their children or the audience; they are talking to one another and even if you're are a professional stockbroker, you still won’t completely follow the conversations because specific numbers, equations, data, names, ratings or proper nouns of any sort are completely absent. This is a historical drama trying to be timeless.
More fatally, the characters themselves find little passion in the 24-hour span of the story. Several go through emotional stages but the stages themselves are under-whelming. “I am stunned,” says one character. “I as well,” says another. “I am the most stunned,” says a third. “I, truthfully, am not so stunned,” says the fourth. And so the story continues. They may be scared, but no real action takes place in the most literal sense. They go from sitting in an office, then a different office to standing on a rooftop, sitting in a car, standing in an office, on a stoop, and finally in a backyard where the movie ends. I suppose most people’s lives play out as such but it feels like a waste of cinema’s virtues. The characters may look out over the city skyline as executives are wont to do, believing themselves titans of the world, but no real-life, street level people consider such men with a fraction of assumed reverence.
Just as importantly, “Margin Call” is not a Faustian tale, for there are neither real villains nor comeuppance--necessary or otherwise. This is the world we have created. Perhaps in that way, the film is at least unique, if not a little brave. The characters’ desperate acts are in the interest of survival, not greed, and if the only way to survive is to be greedy, so be it. Too many of us would do the same. A million dollars. Ten million? A hundred million? It’s amazing how quickly the characters, and by extension ourselves, can rationalize away morality and cling to the myth that money isn’t everything. A million dollars isn’t just for Scrooge McDuck to swim around in. It’s mortgages, it’s food, it’s sanity, health and continued survival for ourselves and our loved ones.
Like similar financial-oriented films, “Margin Call” has mid-level characters lament the world of capitalism while The Gatekeepers defend their own actions as inevitable human nature. Unfortunately there isn’t the throbbing masculinity and, dare I say, stunt casting of “Glengarry Glen Ross.” Nor is it within a mile of the wall-shattering monologues and even better-casted likes of “Network.” However, it is considerably more crafted than “The Company Men”--the self-crucifying 2010 film about the same economic downturn. Not a stirring recommendation, but why be more excitable than the characters?
More than anyone else, Jeremy Irons deserves a special nod—and not just because I could listen to that man talk all day. Irons, for his character name is irrelevant, conveys a man who is both soothing and perfectly inured to the suffering of others. He is the last character to see doom spelled on the wall so it’s almost fun to watch him alone discovered the advantages of such economic catastrophe. At this point, the movie damn near takes on gangster film qualities as characters confront one another in the bathroom, sinisterly park cars and allow suicide to become a motif of the film. In this last example, cultural memory has lied to you as no stockbrokers leaped from skyscrapers in 2008, or even in 1929.
The methodical pacing will appeal to the patient, but not those seeking escapism. Don’t get me wrong, there is plenty to consider when questioning the tendencies (and obligations) of society, our neighbors and ourselves. And if a new movie is necessary to facilitate such conversations within and among ourselves then, by all means, see “Margin Call.” There are interpretations of the world and people, but the film itself is decidedly pessimistic as the end credits roll with the extended audio of digging. And digging. And more digging. It doesn’t matter why the character is digging, for leaving the theater to such chilling audio will create one summary: we are burying ourselves.