Four years ago, I sat down and decided to see The Big Short only knowing it was about the 2008 financial crisis. With my schedules of also doing book reviews, school, work, and personal projects, I generally can’t watch as many movies as other film critics, but I decided this one would be worth my time because of glowing reviews from two critics I follow giving it a grade they don’t usually give. When I first saw it, I was disappointed by it, feeling it was too confusing to follow the important parts and it did not do a good job of actually showing communities who lost their jobs and had to live on the street because of the recession, and I awarded it a C, thinking it probably would’ve been lower if it didn’t seem like it knew what it was and that it was at least smart on its subject material and occasionally funny. Then as time went on, I became more curious to rewatch it because I felt with a second viewing I could understand the crisis a bit more clearly. The next thing I knew, I realized that this movie was actually pretty good, with an attitude towards Wall Street that was honestly angry and very revealing towards why modern business folk are slimy and untrustworthy.
So, as we all know by now, in 2008 the world, especially in the U.S., was in the biggest economic downturn since The Great Depression. Millions of people lost their jobs and homes and trillions of dollars disappeared. We all know Wall Street was to blame because when it happened there was a vote for a bailout that took place (which Bernie Sanders voted against, I want to add.) But there were a few who saw it coming. There were a few who predicted the crash despite the fact all the banks and PR firms and people getting huge bonuses were telling everyone our stock and mortgage markets were rock solid and as stable as a table. There were a few who ended up doing their homework a bit more, doubting what they were fed, and began noticing rats in the system. There are essentially four points of view, as you may expect from the main theatrical poster. Christian Bale plays an autistic hedge fund manager with his eyes not looking the same way and says “Um” all the time, something movie characters tend to not do. He openly says he doesn’t know how to work people and be sarcastic but he does know how to read numbers. Steve Carrell plays Mark Baum, a bull of anger towards greedy Wall Street firms because he has a personal bone to pick with the banks who screwed over his brother to the point of him jumping off a building to escape the loan sharks. Steve Eisman, who’s the real name of the character Carrell impersonates, said his depiction was accurate, but Baum was funnier than he. Ryan Gosling plays in between Baum and Burry’s stories when he hears that Burry decided to short the housing market (shorting something means betting it will fail; betting his money so that if he’s right, the one’s who bet otherwise have to pony up). Okay, back to Burry a bit for a pause. Burry, against the advice of one of his main investors, ends up able to bet against you could say every big bank in town, creating a net “short” position of 1.3 billion dollars. To do that, the banks order Mike to pay monthly fees to the banks, because of a “pay-as-we-owe structure”. So in order for the privilege of betting against the housing market, he has to give away money every time a time of year comes up and the market has not done what he says it will, and bankers end up really enjoying the payout received from this (in contrast, Mike’s investors end up very mad about this, as you can imagine.) Jared Vennett, who Gosling plays, hears about this, does a little digging of his own and finds out this outsider is right, and goes to Baum’s office introducing the idea of shorting the market. Baum wants Vennett to be right because of the idea of profiting off the stupidity of the people who screwed over his brother. Meanwhile, Ben Rickert (Brad Pitt) is a former Wall Street banker who gave up the whole ordeal over anger, but he gets the attention of his neighbours, Charlie and Jamie, who are trying to get into the Wall Street industry with an impressive portfolio (in my opinion) but getting their foot in the door ends up seeming simply impossible, like they’ve arrived too late for the party. Then they also hear about Burry’s big short position. Basically, it’s about these four people and all the different ways they utilize the crisis, either to make big money or to try to force the banks to stop what they’re doing before a market explosion hits.
Now I know that was a big and detailed synopsis, but I feel I could give you a proper head start, and my original synopsis of my first review wasn’t as insightful. It might at first be alarming how white the cast is, as well as almost everyone around Wall Street, until we realize our world is operated to make it so white people tend to either be the only ones trusted enough to handle large sums of money and be responsible with large paydays or be the only ones expected to make it through accounting university and find a job at some chemically-santitated skyscraper. Also, with the film divided into four points of view, we see that the heroes we’re rooting for are looked down upon by society for being different. Michael is unafraid to do homework that everyone else finds a waste of time and a cataclysmic chore at the same time to do. Mark is as pessimistic as someone who lost his brother when Wall Street got into his face just too much, because he is that someone. Jamie and Charlie are exemplarily smart at their investment firm, turning 30,000 dollars into 30 million in just a few years, yet the big guys who were inherited crazy sums of money for decades just scoff, the world just designed to be against them no matter how hard they try.
Now, I still think more time should’ve been made into the people who lost all their savings, to witness how they reacted when they realized their bank zapped away all their money and retirement funds and hid behind obfuscated excuses. The movie ends right when the recession commences. And I can’t ignore the fact my first viewing wasn’t the best possible, and I still wholeheartedly think the protagonists should’ve met up somewhere in this film. This is an exemplary case of needing to go into a movie knowing exactly what to expect or else there’s a big chance of not liking it. You have to be prepared to pay attention and understand there might be a few terms you don’t understand, and that if you do pay attention, even if there is something weird, you understand the gist. The more you think about the movie, the more it actually makes confusing terms people go to university in order to be clarified for a lot more digestible. Gosling’s character says, “You probably still don’t know what happened. I mean, yeah, you have a sound byte, but, c’mon.”
I could give you a rundown of how the recession actually happened, but I think you should read Nell Minow’s terrific and glowing review of this film, where she includes her own explanation that’s pretty spot-on: www.moviemom.com/the-big-short
Also, fair interesting thing; the movie is self-aware (for the most part) when it is being too complicated for mainstream viewers, and understands (a lot more) when something is important and needs emphasis, so there are some pauses where celebrities are brought on in interesting scenarios, like Margot Robbie in her birthday suit (in a bubble bath as well, no need to be alarmed) and what they do is be our teachers for terms such as why Michael Burry says the market is a bubble that’s going to burst, or what a Collateralized Debt Obligation (C-D-O) is and why it’s important to understand. Whoever came up with that idea deserves a raise, because it’s something I’ve never seen done before.
My favourite storyline was Baum’s. Carrell really is no one-hit actor. The attitudes he brings really help sell whenever something you might not be completely on board with might show up, especially when Baum’s friend Kathy reveals information of long exposure (whatever that is) that is hundreds of percentage points higher than he ever could’ve thought possible.
With President Trump’s incoming recession, even if it isn’t specifically about trade wars, The Big Short manages to be a movie smart enough to let loads of us really understand why millions of people lost their money and homes, and why we can be confident enough to look at statements, aka excuses from greedy banks and call BS to their faces. All the while also being entertaining if you’re ready for it. Bernie Sanders says if we can bail out the banks for all their crookery, then we can forgive student loan debt. This movie made me agree with him on that.