Despite a tough story to get across to viewers, Margin Call succeeds brilliantly. This is largely due to a tight script and superb cast even though the story rarely leaves the sterile confines of a high-rise and some cars over a 24 hour period. Paul Bettany, Zach Quinto, and Stanley Tucci along with Demi Moore perform their supporting roles with aplomb but the real prizes go to Kevin Spacey and Jeremy Irons who are nothing short of brilliant as morally compromised yet very human characters responding to incentives they know to be wrong but inconvenient to their personal wealth and career prospects. This is a thinking persons film through and through, something all too rare these days.
If you want to know how the early stages of the Great Crash of 2008 happened, this story is pretty damn close to what the internal dynamics and incentives were like at the big investment banks on Wall Street like Goldman Sachs circa mid-2007 (which largely avoided the worst effects due to being first to dump and then short the MBS bonds and other derivatives it had once sold) versus Lehman Brothers (which didn't dump its assets quick enough and went bankrupt setting off the acute phase of the credit crunch and job losses). Even if the details of the crisis and technical-speak are lost on you (and they really don't dominate at all, merely being plot devices for the onslaught of Nemesis upon the guilty characters), seeing the way past decisions undermine loyalty, responsibility and empathy is just spot on. The politics of a massive publicly owned corporation and its intricately operating hierarchy are something everyone who has worked in finance or another Fortune 500 company will find chillingly laid bare in a subtle way. There are no cartoonishly evil characters here, and even though Jeremy Irons' scenes make him out to be amoral he merely thinks that is the system they all signed on to, and he's somewhat right despite his callousness. Spacey tries to hold the high ground when asked to essentially backstab all his employees, colleagues in other firms and life's work but in the end gives in to the one law of the jungle on the Street: money. And while it's easy judge him as unscrupulous and unprincipled in that moment, the viewer should not forget another brilliant line delivered by Bettany earlier in the film defending the investment firms' actions: you and I are guilty too, as without these amoral creatures and their great corporate vehicles, we wouldn't enjoy our lifestyles as we know them. You shouldn't leave this film smugly confident that you aren't above these characters and they world they portray, even if in a more abstract, quotidian fashion.