We had to wait awhile for a good Iraq War movie (2007’s In the Valley of Elah), and it looks as if we’ll need some distance from the financial collapse of 2008 before we get a decent film about that catastrophe.
Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps gave the collapse a passing glance (it was really more interested in Shia LaBeouf’s motorcycle), while The Company Men amounted to little more than working-class pandering. Now Margin Call fails to wring any drama from the biggest financial event since the Great Depression. Just because the details of economic ruin are boring – stock prices and fund portfolios and risk management – do the movies about it have to be, as well?
Set during one long day and night at an imploding Wall Street investment firm, Margin Call means to put us right in the action, but it’s so tedious and simplistic that all we really feel is the drag of those unending hours. Zachary Quinto stars as a low-level risk analyst who stumbles across some alarming trends that will forecast the greater collapse to come. He proceeds to alert his boss (Paul Bettany), who alerts his boss (Kevin Spacey) and so on and so on until the movie becomes a series of increasingly alarmed faces looking at papers and computer screens. No wonder the cast is so big, with Demi Moore, Stanley Tucci and Jeremy Irons also on board.
Despite repeated requests by characters to have the situation explained in “plain English,” Margin Call never delves into the details of the financial collapse or finds a way to make them cinematically come alive. And while there are occasional speeches that touch on the larger moral issues at play – Bettany gets a diatribe against “normal people” that could stand as a retort to the Occupy Wall Street movement – these are all didactic in nature and clumsily dropped into the drama at hand.
Do pivotal historical events need time to settle into our collective consciousness before a revealing film about them can be made? It would seem so. Some would argue we’re still waiting for the definitive 9/11 movie. And so, if there’s a picture that can make dramatic sense of this economic maelstrom we’re still riding, it may be years away.