“The Big Short” showcases callow, unrestricted greed with anger but no apologies
It is generally agreed that the 2008 financial crisis was caused in large part by Wall Street gamblers who robbed the U.S. taxpayer only to be bailed out by the U.S. government. This has been the thesis for a wide variety of media, from books and films, to serious articles and political speeches around the globe.
Yet, as with most complex systems, many of those affected by the reckless behavior of big banks and financial institutions have no real understanding of what happened. This ignorance on the part of the average American explains just how six million people might have acquired a subprime, variable interest rate loan without having an income or credit.
Americans view home ownership as an essential part of success and American success is often defined by external factors—no one sees a balance sheet or a tax return, but everyone can see a three-story home with fieldstone walls and a white picket fence.
As always, the poor and the new were targets for scams that preyed upon their hopes and dreams. However, this time, the opportunistic parasites in real estate nearly bankrupted the global economy. But whenever there are losers, there are winners. “The Big Short” tells the story of a handful of Wall Street investors that saw the writing on the wall long before the collapse, and made bets as they watched the economy crumble.
And the film is infuriating in a way that is hard to describe. There are no heroes, only villains that serve as protagonists to lead the audience through the mire. Through a series of fourth wall breaking comments, the audience sees the smug, superior attitude of men who see the people of world as numbers on a page, free to be manipulated and moved from one balance sheet to another in order to pack a few more dollars into the yearly bonus.
The men in the film are not especially likable—they are single-minded, profit-driven machines that saw a weakness in the housing markets and exploited it for personal gain. One might wonder why, if they knew that the housing bubble was set to collapse years before the rumblings began, why not make an effort to stop it, to fix the problem, to self-regulate?
The film argues that it wouldn’t have mattered, since no one believed them. From Bears Stearns to Countrywide to Lehman Brothers, executives were more than happy to take their money and allow them to bet against the American economy. Financial regulators in Washington were almost nonexistent, and those that work for the Federal Government were aching to get out of public service and into the moneymaking machine of Wall Street. Everyone, it seems, was in bed with everyone else, creating a miasma of poor decision making, conflicts of interest, and general apathy.
The film explains the absurdity of the crisis in its own self-satisfied way, insisting that Americans can’t focus on a dry issue without help from popular culture. At various times throughout the film, the audience is given the important background information by using beautiful celebrities sipping wine in a bubble bath or popular reality stars making stews in a busy kitchen. It’s dismissive of American intelligence, but provocative in begrudging correctness.
Director Adam McKay, known until now for his comedy films with Will Ferrell, is clearly angry and has been for a long time. Several of his films, post-2008, featured Wall Street hedge fund managers as villains. 2010’s “The Other Guys” even ended with a credit sequence explanation of the 2008 financial crisis.
McKay is desperate to tell this story over and over, until someone listens and forces change. But change is unlikely until the people demand it, and the people will never demand it until they admit to themselves that blissful ignorance is dangerous.
“The Big Short” is highly effective in its message as well as its conclusions, driven by strong performances and clever direction. It is bitterly funny and frustratingly true. However, an Oscar nominated film is still unlikely to reach the ears of the people that need to hear it the most.
Those that are the angriest about the worst financial downturn since the Great Depression knew about the problems on Wall Street long before this film was made. The people that weren’t angry, or misplaced their anger by attacking the poor and the immigrants, likely went to see “Ride Along 2” this weekend.
The film makes the case the Wall Street hasn’t changed much. Instead, they have simply rebranded their products. Some movies always have a sequel.