Photo by Paramount Pictures
The 2008 financial collapse is the stuff of high drama, and cinema’s heavyweights have weighed in, depicting and documenting capitalism’s catastrophe with films such as Oliver Stone’s 2010 Wall Street sequel, 2011’s Margin Call, Costa-Gavras’ 2012 Capital, Martin Scorsese’s 2013 The Wolf of Wall Street and Charles Ferguson’s Best Documentary Oscar winner, 2010’s Inside Job. Now the star-studded The Big Short enters the film fray, but with a twist: Co-writer/director Adam McKay, whose credits include Saturday Night Live and Will Ferrell flicks like 2004’s Anchorman, brings a comedic sensibility to financial sector shenanigans. Indeed, Short has been nominated for four Golden Globes, including for Best Motion Picture—Comedy or Musical.
Based on actual events and characters, Short focuses on the fall of the housing market. Leavening what many might find extremely dry, complicated subject matter with humor, McKay keeps the movie moving. For instance, to make technical terms such as CDOs (Collateralized Debt Obligations), tranches, etc., understandable they are described by a beautiful blonde swigging champagne in a bubble bath, celebrity chef Anthony Bourdain slicing and dicing seafood in a restaurant kitchen, and pop star Selena Gomez gambling in a casino. These droll vignettes help to demystify the highfalutin’ high finance verbiage and to make them more accessible to us mere mortals who don’t hold MBAs. Even more importantly, Short explains how the technical-sounding lingo of the so-called “masters of the universe” is deliberately intended to obfuscate, intimidate, and confuse ordinary folks, and to cover up the fact that Wall Street’s financial “products” are often worthless (or as several characters put it, “dog shit”).
While the so-called business press completely missed the story until this “shit” hit the fan, Short tells how a few investment outsiders stumbled upon the unfolding crisis and bet against it. (“Short” is Wall Street-ese for “bet”). They include the real life characters: Michael Burry (Christian Bale), a quirky neurologist with a penchant for heavy metal music and research, whose due diligence discerns the oncoming onslaught; opportunist Jared Vennett (Ryan Gosling), who also sees it all playing out and acts to cash in on the impending crash; and Michael Baum (scene stealing Steve Carell), whose religious Jewish background prompts him to strive to do the ethical thing, encouraged by wife Cynthia, played by Marisa Tomei. (Both Bale and Carell are Golden Globe-nommed in the Best Actor in a Motion Picture - Comedy or Musical category.)
Emerging as a progressive force in Hollywood, Brad Pitt portrays Ben Rickert, a financial whiz kid who comes out of retirement to assist two Colorado investor outliers seeking to become players in the Lower Manhattan scene. When not building new Habitat for Humanity homes, the superstar throws his show biz heft behind socially significant cinema. In addition to acting in The Big Short Pitt shares producing credits, as he has with the 2013 Best Picture Oscar winner 12 Years a Slave, the AIDs activism 2014 TV movie The Normal Heart and 2014’s Civil Rights drama Selma.
The Big Short enlightens viewers with its depiction of the fiscal fiascos that wrecked much of the global economy. The film reveals how during the Reagan era banking became America’s biggest industry (it doesn’t show how manufacturing, which actually produces useful things, was downsized and outsourced during the same period). The lack of regulations during George W. Bush’s presidency is exposed, along with the collusion between the Securities and Exchange Commission and the industry it is supposed to regulate. At a Las Vegas convention an SEC “enforcer” appears to be sleeping with one of the capitalists she is supposedly overseeing. (Dubya put his family’s Wall Street pedigree and Harvard MBA to good use, just as his unnecessary wars enriched his defense contractor campaign donors.)
Playing a vision-impaired ratings agency hack, Oscar winner Melissa Leo demonstrates how Standard & Poor’s and Moody’s, too, are in bed with banks, rewarding dubious financial “products” with AAA scores instead of objectively analyzing and assessing them. Short also depicts a Wall Street Journal reporter refusing to cover the pending collapse because he didn’t want to lose his chummy relationship with Financial District sources. The big picture created by McKay and co-writer Charles Randolph (who received Golden Globe noms for Best Screenplay-Motion Picture) is a High Renaissance of conflict of interests, with a massively corrupt private enterprise system full of fraudulence and widespread, systemic criminality. As an astonished Vennett (Gosling’s character) utters in the understatement of the century: “There’s some shady stuff going down.”
The Big Short shows how Wall Street’s criminal venality affected the working class, causing extensive unemployment, homelessness, and the wiping out of pensions and lifetime savings for millions of ordinary people. In a clever Sin City sequence, gambling is cleverly counterpointed with contemporary capitalism: It’s all a crap shoot. Unfortunately, what happens at Vegas doesn’t always stay at Vegas.
Towards the end, the housing bubble bursts, and Carell’s character confronts a blustery booster and investor. Like an avenging angel Baum strikes a moral pose: “Banks have conditioned us to trust them and what have we got from that? Twenty-five percent interest rates on credit cards. They have screwed us on student loans so we can never get out from under…”
We are offered a hilarious alternative ending the film shows us what would have happened had justice—and sanity—prevailed: The imprisonment of corporate criminals and banksters, and the breakup of giant banks. For a moment one almost expects presidential candidate Senator Bernie Sanders to appear and proclaim: “Socialism is the solution!”
But this is just science fiction—Short flashes back to reality, revealing that those “too big to fail” banks were also too big to jail, and that the U.S.-taxpayer-funded bailouts were used to wreck the lives of millions by profiteers, who used their enormous bonuses for huge campaign contributions to politicians to defeat regulations that might reign in their insatiable greed.
The Big Short shows the big picture of how America’s financial system truly operates—and how more crises are inevitable. That the filmmakers use wit to depict this tragedy only goes to prove Marx’s quip: “First time tragedy, second time farce.”
L.A.-based reviewer/film historian Ed Rampell appears in an episode of the Asylum Entertainment series “Demons in the City of Angels,” about blacklisted screenwriter Bobby Lees, expected to air on the Reelz Network in January 2016. Rampell is The Progressive Magazine’s “Man In Hollywood.” and author of “Progressive Hollywood, A People’s Film History of the United States.” Rampell has interviewed many talents such as Costa-Gavras and Oliver Stone (twice) for this magazine. His Progressive interview with America’s former Poet Laureate is in the new book “Conversations With W.S. Merwin.” Rampell co-authored “The Hawaii Movie and Television Book” (see: http://hawaiimtvbook.weebly.com/).