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“Margin Call” takes place within the 36 hours leading up to a major Wall Street investment firm’s collapse. We’re never given the name of the firm, but the CEO is named “Tuld” and the CEO of Lehman Brothers in reality is named Fuld, so you be the judge.

It all starts with some lay-offs. Stanley Tucci passes off a thumb drive with some valuable information on it as he’s being booted out the door. The young analyst who receives it (Zachary Quinto) does what a good analyst should – he analyzes it. What he finds is that the firm has been operating way outside of the acceptable bounds of risk for some time, and the proverbial shit is about to hit the proverbial fan. He kicks this info up the chain of command, and pretty soon the top dogs (Kevin Spacey, Demi Moore, Paul Bettany, Simon Baker) are pulling an all-nighter trying to determine what options might possibly exist that would allow them to save the company. They come up with bupkiss.

“Tuld”, played with an almost gleeful snarl by Jeremy Irons, shows up and tells them exactly what to do: Fire sale! Dump the junk! Fire everybody after they’ve spent the day dumping the questionable “assets”, and what’s left will be… well, the people most responsible for the meltdown in the first place, with the exception of one lone head on a pike which they must offer up to the board.

Sam Rogers (played with a good deal of sympathy by Kevin Spacey) wonders aloud how Tuld can be so calm throughout all of this. He muses, “Clearly, you know something I don’t.” And the audience knows it too: Tuld’s pals in Washington will see to it that the company stands, and you and I will foot the bill.

“Margin Call” does a good job of illuminating some of the murkier ins and outs of Wall Street shenanigans by taking us into the lair, so to speak, but it’s hard to muster much empathy. Some effort is made to show the insular world in which they operate and how questionable decision making is based on the fear of losing the station they’ve worked so hard to attain. There is some talk of “What will this do the regular people?” but ultimately the film stays focused on what it does to the people who operate at the upper levels.

After a lifetime of long hours, lost youth, sacrificed health and marriages, when it’s all said and done they’ve spent their time shuffling paper around. They haven’t made anything, built anything, planned anything, or served anything other than making a very small handful of people very rich. It’s this realization that knocks the light out of Spacey’s eyes, and he shows us what a fine actor he really is.

First time director J.C. Chandor shows remarkable restraint in slowly building unease and tension as the night wears on and turns in to a hellish day. There’s a steely gray look to the cinematography and this furthers a sense of cold distance. Ultimately, “Margin Call” plays like a complex tutorial given by some of our finest actors, who perhaps use lines like, “Explain it to me like I’m dumb.” one too many times to be believed.

But as far as tutorials go, most of us could use one on this topic. It is doubtful that “Margin Call” will be the definitive film on Wall Street, but it’s quite possibly the best one so far.

3.5 of 5 stars

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