The Big Short deals with a subject that seems all but impossible to make into an entertaining film: the early-2000s U.S. mortgage crisis and resulting economic collapse. Based on the book of the same name by Michael Lewis, the film uses a range of creative techniques to make this economic disaster, and the horrible realities behind it, more or less understandable to the average viewer. More than that, it allows us to be swept up in the suspense of the story, and to join the central characters in their anger and indignation that such a thing was even possible.
I don’t pretend the film has allowed me to fully understand the intricacies of American banking. However, it did get across the essential facts. U.S. financial institutions, having found ways to make more and more money over the course of the past forty or fifty years, finally slipped their bonds completely and, in the early twenty-first century, came up with creative, ethically questionable arrangements which allowed them to profit from less wealthy families being unable to pay their debts – ultimately, to the great detriment of much of the population. Aided by toothless and somewhat complicit regulatory boards, financial institutions became increasingly reckless and corrupt, eventually costing millions of people their homes and incomes. All these facts, The Big Short manages to get across not only without becoming didactic, but in an entertaining way.
The plot centres not on the large banks and mortgage companies directly involved, but on a small group of comparative outsiders who, recognising, through one means or another, the inevitability of the coming housing collapse, decided to ‘short’ the mortgage market – in other words, to bet against its success. Such a thing had never been tried before, and seemed insanely risky; but if they were correct, the coming disaster would make them incredibly wealthy – which is exactly what happened.
The scriptwriters realise how arcane and dull the subject is to the layman. In fact, it is pointed out, the fact that finance is confusing to most people is one of the reasons such large-scale fraud can be openly committed. Knowing this, they made the unavoidable explanations a matter of comic relief. When the practice of shorting the market came up, the action suddenly stopped, and a character turned to the camera and said, “So here’s Margot Robbie in a bathtub, to explain “shorting” to you!” Sure enough, the next shot was of the lovely actress, surrounded by bubbles, providing a brief and clear explanation of shorting the market, following which the film’s action continued where it left off. The same technique was used repeatedly, employing known celebrities to appear in incongruous settings and briefly explain financial terminology. In the same way, characters occasionally break the ‘fourth wall’ and speak to the camera, when clarification is necessary. The technique is done well, and rather than impeding the flow of the story, adds to it. These interjections, combined with a dark sense of humour, make the subject matter more entertaining than would seem possible.
Clearly, The Big Short also has a moral message, but does not belabour it. A good part of the film is presented as something of a suspense story, in which (although we already know the outcome) we join the small group of investors in anxiously waiting to find out if their risk will pay off. The immorality of feeding off the poverty and disaster of millions of people, having been established early on, is ignored for the central part of the film. Then, when success is certain, and two of the small investors are exulting over the profits they will make, their advisor demands they stop celebrating, reminding them that they, like the banks, are profiting from the inevitable misery of millions. The reminder in this context is striking. A direct message of this kind is repeated only at the conclusion of the film, with a cynical summary of the outcome of the disaster, which involved a government bailout of the institutions involved, and no penalties of any significance for the perpetrators of the collapse.
The entire cast is excellent, particularly Christian Bale as Michael Burry, a brilliant but extremely eccentric hedge fund manager, who predicted (and profited from) the coming economic collapse; and Steve Carrell as Mark Baum, a banker whose anger with the practices in his own field leads him to bet against the banks partly because it is the only form of punishment he can exact. It is Baum who provides the moral outrage, speaking as a kind of one man Greek chorus of fury and disgust as facts about the activities of financial institutions and their supposed overseers are gradually revealed.
A story involving so much hubris, such unrestrained greed and such complete disregard for the suffering imposed on ‘lesser’ humans, seems like a drama that all but writes itself – were it not for the barrier of incomprehensible fiscal details. The Big Short has found a way to break through that barrier, and present the central story in all its horror.