Forget the florid excesses of Oliver Stone's Wall Street 2 or the real-life dumbshow that constituted HBO's Too Big to Fail.
If you want a sense of what moral disintegration looks like in real-time, look no further than J.C. Chandor's Margin Call, a fictional look at the near-collapse of a major investment bank, set against the context of the 2008 collapse.
We don't know the name of the bank or even what it really does. Indeed, Chandor's script is remarkably light on details about what actually has gone wrong. But it's enough to put the fear of god into a lot of characters who look like seriously heavy hitters.
It's not discovered, however, until the day of a massive wave of layoffs at the bank. Among those let go is Eric Dale (Stanley Tucci), a risk-management specialist who, on his way out the door, slips a flashdrive to a protégé named Peter (Zachary Quinto), telling him it's something he hadn't quite figured out and to "Be careful."
It's after hours before Peter plugs in the drive and sees the bad news: that, because of its involvement in a variety of complex and risky financial instruments, the entire bank is on the verge of going belly up -- because those risks are suddenly coming due, and they exceeded the gross assets of the company.
What's intriguing about Chandor's script is that, without ever spelling out what's going on, he tracks the progress of this small piece of crucial information, until it goes all the way to the top man, a carnivorous investment banker named John Tuld (Jeremy Irons). But before that, it goes through a chain of command that includes Paul Bettany, Kevin Spacey, Demi Moore and Simon Baker.
The solution to their problem will trigger a panic -- but as Irons tells the questioning Spacey, "If you're the first one out the door, it's not panic." So the question then becomes: Who will do what needs to be done to save the company, no matter how ugly the solution? And who has the good breeding to fall on his sword for the company?
Yet Chandor is looking at a bigger picture here. In a sense, the moral choices have all been made before this movie starts: the choices to take the risks and gobble up the profits, despite the obvious day of reckoning that inevitably awaits. It's like a game of musical chairs and the trick is to not be the one who is left standing when the music stops.
Chandor never gets explicit in his discussions of who should do what; this is a form of business kabuki where everyone knows all the moves ahead of time and must strictly follow form.
This review continues on my website.