A respected financial company is downsizing and one of the victims is the risk management division head, who was working on a major analysis just when he was let go. His protégé completes the study late into the night and then frantically calls his colleagues in about the company's financial disaster he has discovered. What follows is a long night of panicked double checking and double dealing as the senior management prepare to do whatever it takes to mitigate the debacle to come even as the handful of conscientious comrades find themselves dragged along into the unethical abyss. Written by
Kenneth Chisholm (email@example.com)
J.C. Chandor said that he wrote the script for the story he had been carrying around in his head for about a "year-and-a-half" in just four days, filling time between job interviews in Boulder, Colorado. See more »
Eric Dale ('Stanley Tucci') makes a mathematical error when he talks about how much time is saved by people using the bridge he built. He says 559,020 days are saved, but the correct number is 5,590,200. See more »
First-Time Filmmaker Deftly Handles the Financial Meltdown on Human-Size Terms
Having been the victim of corporate downsizing more than once, I was immediately engaged with this propulsive 2011 corporate drama from the beginning as Stanley Tucci's character, a seasoned risk management executive named Eric Dale, is told in a coldly indifferent manner that he is being laid off after 19 years with the same unnamed Wall Street firm. It's a piercing yet dramatically economical scene that perfectly summarizes how bloodless the corporate world can be, and in first-time writer/director J.C. Chandor's effort set on the eve of the 2008 financial crisis , it is very cold indeed with 80% of the trading floor being let go. As Dale is escorted out of the building, he hands a flash drive to his prodigious assistant Peter Sullivan and tells him to take a look at it and "Be careful."
Once Sullivan analyzes the data, he realizes the universal gravity of Dale's warning - that the firm is so over-committed to underwater mortgage-backed securities that the total potential loss exceeds the firm's total market capitalization value. In other words, the projected scenario means the firm will soon owe a lot more than it's worth, and the market will be on the verge of an apocalyptic meltdown. What happens after this discovery is a series of sharply intense clandestine confrontations with each level of higher-ups recognizing the ramifications of the inevitable disaster, each one far more nuanced in character than we are used to seeing in films from Oliver Stone about greed and immorality. Blessedly, Chandor doesn't stoop to the customary stereotypes in this corporate cage match, but what he does manage is capture the moral compass underneath each player by way of a cast that really delivers the goods with powerfully implosive performances.
Zachary Quinto ("Star Trek") is initially at the center of the plot as Sullivan and performs well enough in the constraining, semi-heroic role, but the veterans really stand out here beginning with Kevin Spacey, who effectively plays against type as Sam Rogers, a genuine company man, the seen-it-all head of the trading team who rallies what's left of the trading floor with corporate brio but then faces his own cross to bear struggling to commandeer a fire sale of worthless assets dumped on unsuspecting clients. The other standout is Jeremy Irons, who masterfully resuscitates the cool cunning of his Claus von Bulow from "Reversal of Fortune" as the acerbically survivalist CEO John Tuld. He handily controls the boardroom scene with cutting humor and hostile precision. One of the film's more pleasant surprises is Demi Moore in cool, brisk form as Sarah Robertson, the top risk officer and lone female executive who knows her career is at stake with the discovery of this folly. Tucci is excellent in his smallish role as Dale and gets to show off his resigned character's engineering aptitude with a brief monologue about building a bridge.
Comparatively less impressive but playing their more predictable roles fitfully are Penn Badgley as Sullivan's younger, overtly money-obsessed colleague Seth Bregman; Paul Bettany as Dale's nihilistic, snake-oil salesman of a boss, Will Emerson; and Simon Baker as the most morally despicable executive of the bunch, Jared Cohen. Mary McDonnell has a brief and frankly unnecessary scene as Rogers' ex-wife, and I didn't even recognize the usually hilarious Broadway personality Susan Blackwell as the hatchet woman in the opening scene. There are a few flaws with Chandor's observant screenplay, for example, the overly analogous scenes of Rogers dealing with his dying dog and a rooftop scene that plays up Emerson's nihilistic nature too predictably. In addition, some scenes play either too murkily or too clinically to achieve the precise dramatic effect they should. I think the absence of a musical score also contributes to the sterility of the proceedings. However, as a first-time filmmaker, Chandor more than impresses with his deft handling of such a zeitgeist moment with the Occupy Wall Street protests gaining understandable momentum right now.
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