Want to be a fly on the wall when a gaggle of investment bankers precipitate the 2008 financial crisis? Step up for Margin Call, a thrillingly intense look at what went down through the prism of one unnamed Wall Street investment firm trying to save its ass before Armageddon. Writer-director J.C. Chandor, whose father toiled for Merrill Lynch, makes an impressive debut by focusing the action on a 24-hour period that starts with staff layoffs. One of the shitcanned is Eric Dale (a reliably superb Stanley Tucci), a manager who shares the smell of disaster with his protégé Peter Sullivan (a very fine Zachary Quinto, one of the film's producers). It looks like the future losses will exceed the firm's total market capitalization. Peter and his colleague, Seth Bregman (Penn Badgley), call in their boss, Will Emerson (Paul Bettany), who brings in his chief, Sam Rogers (Kevin Spacey).
Before total panic, Sam consults with even bigger guns – Jared Cohen (Simon Baker, wily perfection) and Sarah Robertson (Demi Moore, silkily effective) – and then the firm's CEO John Tuld (Jeremy Irons) descends from the sky in a chopper and all hell breaks loose. Chandor doesn't take the documentary approach of Inside Job or amp things up like Oliver Stone in his Wall Street films. He's measuring the human cost at stake. Every actor is first-rate. Spacey is at the top of his game. And Irons is stingingly funny as he addresses Quinto's character, a former rocket scientist at M.I.T.. Like all of us, Tuld wants a simple explanation. "Speak to me like a small child or a golden retriever," he implores. Margin Call is an explosive drama that speaks lucidly and scarily to the times we live in. As Tuld says, "There are three ways to make a living in this business: be first, be smarter, or cheat."
• Peter Travers' Fall Movie Preview