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Sundance 2011: Is Kevin Spacey's 'Margin Call' an indie 'Wall Street'?

January 21, 2011 |  5:36 pm

"Inside Job" explained the financial crisis, and  "Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps" dramatized it. But if there's a need for a character study about the panic felt by Wall Streeters up and down the food chain in the cataclysmic days of 2008, J.C. Chandor is here at the Sundance Film Festival to fill it.

The writer-director, whose father has worked at Merrill Lynch for nearly 40 years, struggled for years to get an independent feature made before hitting on the idea of writing a drama set during the worst hours of the financial collapse. As the crisis was raging in November 2008, he banged out a draft in less than a week.

The result of that feverish bout of productivity is "Margin Call," a star-laden movie about the night that executives at an unnamed bank realize that the world as they knew it is crumbling around them. (Some have speculated that financial institution in question is Lehman Bros., but the movie's intimation that the bank survived and even profited from the crisis suggests Goldman Sachs.)

The film features a top-level cast that, in order of their places on the corporate totem pole, includes Zachary Quinto, Stanley Tucci, Kevin Spacey, Paul Bettany, Simon Baker and Jeremy Irons.

Chandor unveiled the movie to members of the media and film industry on Friday morning, and it promptly drew comparisons to David Mamet's "Glengarry Glen Ross," which also chronicled would-be alpha males brought low in a collapsing business. While it begins like a thriller, Chandor's movie is more of an exploration of what happens when masters of the universe realize they don't control much of anything at all.

"There are people who, when we were trying to get it made, said it's not a thriller. And I said, you're right, it's not," said Chandor at a Park City, Utah, condo a few hours after after the screening. "The movies like that, 'Wall Street' and  some others, have been made. And they did what they needed to do. But that's not what I set out to do."

In fact, as he was seeking backing, studios and financiers pushed Chandor to include scenes like the obligatory man-in-handcuffs. But the filmmaker held fast.

"These aren't criminals. They're [and here Chandor made an anatomical reference]. We want them to be that. These guys are on the sword tip of capitalism," he said.

Even with all the star power, Chandor struggled to get the low-budget film made as independent financiers tightened their wallets in 2009 and 2010. "The irony of it all is that the script wouldn't have been written if not for the recession, and for a long time it couldn't be made because of the recession," he said. More from Chandor later.

--Steven Zeitchik


Photo: Kevin Spacey in "Margin Call." Credit: Sundance Film Festival


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