Charles Ferguson’s documentary about the 2008 economic collapse, Inside Job, explained the event with such density that one could get lost in an abyss of numbers and figures. With Margin Call, J.C. Chandor’s debut feature, we see a condensed version of what caused the entire event, as we view the people associated with the collapse through a sympathetic lens. It’s a brave choice to view so many detestable people through such a lens, and it’s one of Chandor’s more astute writing decisions, as it conveys a more humane and cinematic element to the proceedings – something that was absent in Ferguson’s cold documentary. But while that aspect of his writing and direction work in his favor, Chandor’s inability to write convincing dialogue for his characters proves to be Margin Call’s most significant detriment.
Chandor establishes the tone of the picture from the onset, wherein 80% of the office floor of a nondescript investment bank is let go. Recalling scenes from Jason Reitman’s Up in the Air, we see upper-management get the shaft in favor of the younger staff. We’re initially set to sympathize with Eric Dale (Stanley Tucci) as he is escorted off the premises. He was working on an unfinished project of great magnitude, whereupon he passes an USB drive to his apprentice Peter Sullivan (Zachary Quinto). With great caution, Eric advises Peter to “be careful”.
Margin Call is just as much about the economic collapse as it is about the traveling of information. As Peter explores the contents of the USB drive, the audience views the bureaucratic system of how information is delivered from one superior to another. There’s a constant sense of movement throughout most the film’s first act, which is admirable in the same way something like The Social Network was able to stir a sense of excitement out of computer hacking. But the film begins to stumble when it becomes dependent on Chandor’s script to explain the intricacies of the event. As prominent characters begin to inquire about the magnitude of the upcoming crash, we gather that their knowledge of the instability of the market is minimal, wherein they constantly ask other characters to have things explained to them in “plain English”. Perhaps this is closer to the truth, and it wouldn’t be surprising given Chandor’s experiences as the son of a stockbroker, but it simply registers on a false note. I get that feeling throughout long stretches of the film, particularly as Kevin Spacey and Jeremy Irons vie for the screen. It’s as if Chandor hopes to punctuate every scene with a key expository line.
The film works better on a visual level, particularly in a clever scene involving two prominent members of the firm who deliberate as to who should take the blame for the impending meltdown – standing between the two figures is the building cleaning woman, unaware of the lingo dished out by the two figureheads. It’s a potent image, but again, like with most of the picture, there’s something about the way the dialogue is exchanged that fails to register as anything but false.