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Film Review: The Big Short

The Big Short (2015; Directed by Adam McKay)

It’s now evident, if it wasn’t years ago, that the United States of America has not fully come to terms with happened to its economy and to its society in 2008-2009, during the vaunted worldwide financial crisis. It did not, of course, just “happen”, but was caused by nigh-on criminal irresponsibility and/or fraud from the high levels of Wall Street investment banks to the lower levels of ratings agencies, predatory lenders, real estate agents, and smaller investors. Prosecutions of the crooked (or incompetent) exploiters of the industry’s under-regulated trading were lacking and necessary reforms to the larger structures of the financial world fell well short of its critics’ expectations, and popular sentiment has not turned wholly against the high-finance perpetrators (Bernie Sanders’ most zealously anti-corporate supporters notwithstanding). The sort of wheeling-and-dealing free market capitalism that underlies the crisis’ causes is too central to self-conceptions of American identity to be challenged in the collective consciousness (this is one factor in Donald Trump’s political success on the right), no matter the costs to ordinary Americans or the inherent illegality of the conduct that lay behind it.

The Big Short is at once a product of the ambiguity that characterizes America’s feeling about the roots of the crisis, a reaction to it, and a symbol of the unlikelihood of resolving its core dilemmas. This film is deeply offended about the outrageous swindle perpetrator on Americans by Wall Street swashbucklers and mildly ambivalent about who to blame, and whether blame is even fully deserved, given the highly perverted context and the fundamental incentives of the system. Despite its often caustic dark humour on the conduct of the figures it chooses to focus on and the deep problems of the system they took advantage of, Adam McKay’s breezy and entertaining examination of the financial types who saw the subprime mortgage crash coming and chose to cash in on it rather than stop it can’t help but make heroes (or at least vaguely sympathetic anti-heroes, which in current entertainment narratives is about the same thing) of them.

The Big Short unearths a certain piratical romanticism in the intelligence, foresight, and cynical lack of moral scruples displayed by these men. They are constructed (mostly) as the best and brightest among a greedy class of the worst and brightest, exemplars of acquisitive acumen if not ethical decision. There is Jared Vennett (Ryan Gosling), the narrator and most recognizable Wall Street animal: arrogant, crude, and cynical with a bronzed exterior, a silver tongue and a golden disdain for anyone he perceives as not as slick, smart, or savvy as himself. He gets good news while working out and high-fives all of the other attractive, prosperous gym rats. A mid-level bond sales cog at Deustche Bank, Vennett gets wise to the coming collapse of the housing market second-hand, overhearing that an obscure Bay Area hedge fund manager named Michael Burry (Christian Bale) claims to have crunched many years’ worth of projection numbers and predicted that the housing market was in fact a vastly over-inflated bubble due to pop.

Burry – a former physician and certified obsessive workaholic eccentric who airs drums to Metallica, reads Terry Brooks’ Shannara books, and evinces strong anti-social tendencies – has invested his clients’ money in bets that the housing market will fail: the infamous credit default swaps. While Burry’s early call strains the patience and funds of his investors, Vennett shops similar investments around Wall Street. About the only firm that doesn’t laugh him out of their conference room is the hedge fund of Mark Baum (Steve Carell), and he and his team (Hamish Linklater, Rafe Spall, Jeremy Strong) only hear about his idea through a misplaced phone call.

Baum is a suspicious and notoriously exacting sort of trader who takes a dim view of the whole financial system and makes a particular effort to call out its bullshit and rip-offs. Baum’s team stress-tests Burry’s prediction strenuously, even travelling to mortgage broker conferences and to Florida, the Foreclosure State, where they find tattooed working stiffs living in McMansions, strippers with multiple homes, and dimwitted frat-boy real estate agents chortling all the way to the bank. Lower down the scale, Colorado-based start-up investment traders Charlie Geller (John Magaro) and Jamie Shipley (Finn Wittrock) are denied an expensive but lucrative ISDA Master Agreement which would allow them to buy and sell with the big boys on Wall Street. With the help of retired trading guru Ben Rickert (Brad Pitt), however, they package much lower-rated credit default swaps, the dreaded “toxic assets” of sure-to-default housing loans, and despite entering late in the game, still score a huge payout at the expense of the most vulnerable citizens in the whole toppling pyramid.

All of these characters cope with the moral dimension of what they’re doing, and who they’re screwing in doing it, differently. Vennett, cossetted in a relatively middling position with a huge bank, sees the deals as a way to measure himself against his similarly hyper-masculine competition on Wall Street and come out on top, and is just brashly confident enough to be beyond caring who gets hurt in the process. Burry, cloistered in his Aspergerian isolation, views the millions of people who will lose homes and savings in the coming crash in the detached, unemotional abstract; they’re only so many numbers, after all, indistinguishable from the columns upon columns of digits that he plows through on a daily basis. Baum has a grimly exasperated righteous indignation to his manipulation of the situation, horrified on a deep moral level by what is going on but rationalizing his profiting off of it as an epic flip-off to the corrupt system that he views with such withering and unmitigated disdain. Geller and Shipley, neophytes that they are, celebrate their pecuniary triumph like victorious rookie punters at the track, for which they are chided by the long-disillusioned Rickert with a weary eye on the broken lives they leave in their wake.

The Big Short alternates breezy wit with such concerned weariness as a matter of course. It revels in the sharp buzz-saw snaps and ripostes of slick Manhattan power brokers while recognizing that those saws often rend the humble flesh of little people somewhere offstage. The saws are more the point in McKay’s vision, though. Like one of its subjects, The Big Short is damned clever, and damn, does it know it. In addition to the characters explaining the various complex, convolutedly-named financial products and concepts, cutaways to Anthony Bourdain in a restaurant kitchen, Selena Gomez and a Harvard economic professor in a casino, and Margot Robbie in a bubble bath detail seemingly dry and non-transparent industry ideas (and note that their apparent dullness is calculated to obscure their nefarious purpose).

McKay, who co-wrote the Oscar-winning screenplay with Charles Randolph based on Michael Lewis’ non-fiction book of the same name, does a more effective job of translating financialese for the masses than, say, a documentary like Inside Job, but it’s there that The Big Short‘s depth of sympathy for the little guy ends. Like Martin Scorsese’s The Wolf of Wall Street, a much more acerbic satire of capitalist excess masquerading as a celebration of it, The Big Short so filters its dominant perspective through the financial predators and their ideology of rapacious acquisitiveness that expressions of concern for the lowly peasants broken under the yoke of their transactions feel rote. As is the case in many such portrayals of Wall Street sharks, that concern has a tendency to manifest as pity for rube-ish suckers, taken in by fast-talking con-men who are morally suspect but also kind of roguishly romantic, like twisted reverse Robin Hoods.

Is this result a mere corollary of the identification impulse of cinematic protagonist point of view? Or can we trace it to a collective American reluctance to contemplate the possibility that the romantic appeal of unchecked capitalism disguises not only darker consequences for its vulnerable victims but the seeds of a more catastrophic social collapse? Either way, The Big Short, for all of its crackling wit and stabs of righteousness, can’t entirely overcome the impression that it tacitly approves of the massive financial fraud it purports to condemn and skewer.

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Categories: Current Affairs, Film, Reviews
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