America very much feels like a country which has powerfully lost sight of its own morals, ideals and values. This has become apparent over the last two years since the rise of Donald Trump to the Presidency, and there’s an argument it has been escalating and building since the death of John F. Kennedy ushered in a darker era of sociological tragedy for the American experience, as discussed when I talked about 1993’s In the Line of Fire.
If there has been a modern trigger, an encapsulating moment for the loss of American belief in idealism, then it’s arguably the 2008 global recession explored in The Big Short. Though presented as a jet black, if not indeed cold-hearted, satire, Adam McKay’s movie is concerned with reminding American audiences in particular just how close they came to economic Armageddon, and how a group of quite remarkable money men almost got away with the ultimate long con against their own people.
The whole project stemmed from a book, ‘The Big Short: Inside the Doomsday Machine’ by Michael Lewis, which blew open the biographical tale of the stock brokers and Wall Street financial number crunchers who saw the writing on the proverbial wall when it came to the American, nay global economic market. From a narrative perspective, it’s a goldmine of a story; the ultimate heist tale, in its own way, about a group of somewhat amoral individuals working out a crippling deficiency in the housing market and planning a way to exploit it to make billions–yes, billions–of dollars off the backs of homelessness and unemployment. McKay’s adaptation, written alongside Charles Randolph, doesn’t shy away from that moral conundrum, but equally doesn’t quite want you to take what is a very serious matter all that seriously while doing so.
McKay seems a strange choice on first glance for a project like this. Ostensibly a comedy director and producer who made his name through Will Ferrell movies such as the Anchorman films, Step Brothers and The Other Guys, McKay seems more at home with broad, American goofiness than black satire, but to a degree The Big Short feels like an evolution for him as a director while still appealing to those silly, almost meta-sentiments you saw in Anchorman; how else to explain the choice (and it was McKay’s) to have celebrity cameos such as Selena Gomez or Margot Robbie (in a bathtub) explaining the key economic concepts at the heart of the film in layman’s terms. That both takes you out of, and grounds you within McKay’s style of the picture.
Namely a style in which the audience aren’t meant, almost, to understand the deeply complicated concept of default credit swaps on mortgage bonds. Do I understand it? Not really, and I was doing my best to pay attention. The Big Short is more concerned with you understanding the people involved in manipulating the closest thing to the 1929 Wall Street Crash in almost a century – the fact the detail is lost on most of us *is* the point, because the same detail was lost on the government. As Ryan Gosling’s slick money man (and ostensible narrator) Jared Vennett explains while pitching the idea of betting against bonds to Steve Carell’s Mark Baum & his team, the entire American housing market is one giant jenga game – take one part away, it all comes crashing down.
That’s why McKay front loads the entire picture with a sense of foreboding. We know, from the beginning, about the 2008 recession. Heck, most of us are still feeling the social and political repercussions almost a decade on, and there’s a very strong argument the rise of anti-intellectual, far-right nationalism across Western democracy over the last few years is a direct result of the economic decline previously wealthy countries have been faced with partly since this. McKay and Randolph don’t quite go as far as decrying the immorality of modern capitalism, but their characters do question whether this isn’t just a housing bubble, but a global capitalist one. It’s a question still raging today and if anything grows more and more relevant.
Foreboding here doesn’t equate to prophetic doom and gloom, as McKay works hard to keep the piece as light as he can, with peppy dialogue and a brace of eccentricities, such as Christian Bale’s broker Michael Burry, who encapsulates about as opposite an image as you could imagine of someone entrenched in Wall Street; clad in a loose t-shirt, baggy shorts and no shoes, blasting hard metal music out of his corporate office, Burry is a direct example of the madness at the very heart of The Big Short and in many respects could serve as an adequate metaphor for a system completely at odds with reality. Bale plays him off-kilter, detached, and the film suggests a level of autism or Asperger’s behind Burry’s pragmatic ability to confront the banking world with an absolute apocalyptic certainty, only to be laughed at, and not just behind closed doors.
Yet the film, while breaking the fourth wall and approaching such a delicate and painful subject as an economic crash with a veritable tongue in cheek, has moments of humanity peppered within the complex, detailed dialogue. Though Carell plays him with a calculated, silver-tongued callousness, Baum is haunted by the suicide of his brother, who threw himself off the top floor of a bank – an apt visual metaphor for the economic system in self-destruct. In a way, Baum becomes the moral compass of the film, in contrast to Burry’s detached, computational approach and Vennett’s charming, oily ruthlessness; it’s no coincidence the movie, ultimately, rests on whether he can honestly go through with the scam of the decade.
You can also point to Ben Rickert, a former stock trader who quit the business to leave peacefully (played by Brad Pitt, who also produces the film), as another moral bulwark. Rickert is jaded and paranoid after his experience, he too having a certain level of detachment, but it’s he who confronts the simple truth that no joy should be taken by financial money men who have spotted this flaw in the system – noting how if unemployment drops just 1%, “40,000 people will die”. These moments of stark reality, presented appropriately in number form, serve to remind the audience this is far from a satirical romp, and consequences happened as a result of this titanic misunderstanding and exploitation of a desperately flawed economic system.
Some commentators have questioned if the banks involved in The Big Short are quite the villains the film paints them to be, suggesting the housing bubble crisis was more complicated and dense than the film portrays. This is no doubt true. McKay is often at pains throughout to remind us this is, ultimately, entertainment; why else break the fourth wall? Or indeed have Vennett, the most amoral character in the picture, serve as our initial guide into a story of which we know the outcome? We’re meant to appreciate the gallows humour inherent in the original book by Lewis, despite how devastating these events were to the ordinary people who suffered. We have to laugh at this, or it may destroy our soul.
The final revelation, in which its discovered how the government may simply be rebadging these mortgage bonds with a new name, speaks to the cyclical nature of big business and corruption, certainly within America. Vennett at one point suggests the story ends with bankers going to prison and getting their comeuppance, McKay’s visuals depicting this just future… only to laugh and apologise – he was joking. That’s what The Big Short does. It reminds you just how broken America’s economic system is by just how much reality TV shows and social media help point ordinary citizens in the other direction, while a significant 1% at the top create a system which cannot in the end sustain.
Could it all happen again? I wouldn’t bet against it.