A Blitz on Ignorance
As you may or may not know, I spent most of 2007, 2008, and 2009 in distant foreign countries, pretty much unable to keep up with news (as opposed to today, of course, when I live in the heart of the United Kingdom and actively try to avoid the news). And occasionally, when I would pop home for a visit, this meant that things everyone else took for granted left me completely baffled.
I distinctly recall one conversation, following a series of news reports which left me puzzled. 'Mother, what's this credit crunch thing everyone keeps talking about?'
'Ah, well, yes. It's about debt. Apparently some banks lent more than they should have and...' She trailed off. 'Well, basically it means the economy's going to collapse.'
'Oh. What, really?'
'Yes, it's to do with... it's to do with... oh, ask your father.'
I don't believe I did, though. We consider ourselves so much more developed than our distant ancestors, whose understanding of the forces affecting their lives was supposedly so limited, and yet we blithely wander through life happily conceding that the workings of the global economy – which is really every aspect of every economy, everywhere – are so arcane and complex they're beyond the ability of normal people to make any sense of. We leave it to the experts, because we believe – and this may largely be the result of the experts themselves telling us so – we have no other option.
Striking a ferocious blow against this orthodoxy is Adam McCay's The Big Short, a subversive macro-economic comedy drama about the origins of the credit crunch and the financial crisis which we all so casually refer to, as though it were an earthquake or a tsunami or some other unavoidable act of God. It isn't, it wasn't, and the film has a damn good try at explaining just why.
The film opens in the mid-2000s, with the banking sector heavily based around the exploitation of bonds based on the housing market: said market being considered utterly rock-solid, the definition of a safe bet. However, free-thinking hedge fund manager Michael Burry (Christian Bale) actually takes the time to check out the underlying mortgages on which the system is founded, and discovers they are deeply suspect. He predicts that the housing market is going to collapse within the next few years and adopts what, in the eyes of his colleagues and superiors, is an insane strategy – investing money based on the assumption that an economic crash is going to happen.
Word of Burry's activities reaches a number of other traders, primarily the amoral Jared Vennett (Ryan 'Goosey Goosey' Gosling) and the professional skeptic Mark Baum (Steve Carell) and they come to realise that Burry seems to be right – a field trip to Florida reveals it's quite normal for exotic dancers to have upwards of half a dozen mortgages on a handful properties, all of them dependent on a steady stream of refinancing opportunities to function, with the local mortgage lenders happy to brag about the fact they'll lend money to anybody, any time, regardless of their ability to pay.
Also catching wind of the unbelievable truth are a couple of neophyte traders (John Magaro and Finn Wittrack) and their veteran mentor (Bradley Pitt), whose investigations lead them to the same conclusions, and the same course: trying to 'short' the market by effectively investing in its failure...
On paper, The Big Short looks like a movie with a potential taste/tone problem (well, it looks like a film with a number of potential issues, if we're honest, but we'll come back to some of the other ones in a bit). This is basically the story of how a motley crew of weirdos, cynics, whizzkids and chancers made vast quantities of money out of a global disaster – so why are we supposed to care about people who are basically profiteers from misery? Shouldn't they all just be eminently punchable human beings?
Well, the film dodges this bullet rather adroitly, mainly by stressing the characters' knowledge of the impending collapse's implications and their own sense of guilt (Brad Pitt procures for himself the speech which makes the situation painfully clear), and there are a number of scenes showing them attempting to raise the alarm on what's coming, only to be dismissed out of hand. And it's hardly as if it's the characters' fault.
I suspect that if the makers of The Big Short want you to take one thing away from this film, it's a deeper understanding of the fact that the financial crisis was not some freak, random event, but the result of systematic greed, corruption, stupidity, and fraud in the banking sector, on an almost inconceivable scale. Tens of millions of people around the world lost their jobs, homes, savings, and, yes, lives – because the financial markets engaged in a profit-obsessed conspiracy of active deception and ostrich-minded wilful ignorance. Across the entire world, one – one! – banker did jail time as a result, for a minor offence, and there was no meaningful reform of the system. There is every sign of the whole thing starting to happen again. You should be angrier about this.
At first glance, Adam McCay is a very odd choice for a film like this – McCay is normally associated with rather broader, more populist projects, directing the Anchorman films and being one of the writers on Ant-Man, for example – but closer scrutiny of his CV will reveal the closing credits of 2010's The Other Guys, at which point a offbeat, knockabout comedy appears to be hijacked by the Occupy movement: a five-minute infographic presentation detailing the costs of economic crime accompanies the names of the cast and crew.
Here, McCay does a fine job of turning what could have been a rather dry and worthy story into something with some life and energy. In addition to extracting winning performances from a strong cast and marshalling a not-especially straightforward story, he gives the film a really subversive, tongue-in-cheek edge. Early on, the number of references to sub-prime mortgages, credit default swaps, and so on, starts to rack up, and Gosling's narrator correctly guesses the viewer may be beginning to feel a bit confused and/or stupid. Never mind, he says: 'Here's Margot Robbie in a bubble bath.'
And, lo, the rising Antipodean star duly appears, covered in suds, to deliver a quick (and somewhat profane) expository info-dump, direct to camera. It's a very funny scene and a brilliant conceit, and one which the film repeats several times with different celebrities and situations. (I have to say that I'm still baffled about much of the finer detail, to the point where I'm actually reading the book the film is based on in an attempt to make sense of it all.) The Big Short's willingness to break the conventional rules of film storytelling gives it an anarchic feel and a sense of fun that suit its anti-establishment, crowd-pleasing mission statement.
In the end, though, I think The Big Short may prove just a bit too radical to do well in the awards season, considering it'll be in contention with more traditional pieces of film-making. But in the end, though, I think this isn't just a good film made with style, but an important one, too, that uncovers a number of uncomfortable truths about the way we live now. Calling it essential viewing is probably overstating things – but not, I would say, by much.