“Truth is like poetry. And most people fucking hating poetry.” This quote, apparently overheard at a Washington, D.C. bar is one of the cynicisms the makers of the Oscar-nominated film, The Big Short, uses to try and explain what led to the 2008 global financial meltdown. We all know it happened because of the ripple effect it had. Most of us know that bankers and financial executives in the developed world, particularly in the U.S,. are to blame. But few, bar economists, really know why and how it happened. The Big Short so brilliantly explains this, it will make you laugh and weep in revulsion. In short, those over-qualified stinking rich capitalists and government officials who should have seen it coming either didn’t, or did, and didn’t care. No one likes the truth when it’s this ugly.
The film follows the true story of four different groups of investment bankers who, in the two years leading up to the crisis, noticed that the numbers provided by big banks and ratings agencies on mortgage bonds in the U.S., simply don’t make sense. An impending implosion is inevitable, and though these hedge fund managers warn various banks, the latter simply don’t give a sh*t. While the protonists are shocked and horrified by what is happening, they see an opportunity to make large amounts of money by going “short”, a financial term that refers to someone against the market. The first one to see it is the idiosyncratic Dr Michael J Burry (Christian Bale). His investors and bosses think he’s mad when he spends billions investing in a product that lets him bet against what everyone insisted was a stable and unshakeable housing market.
There are others who also predict the catastrophe. Ryan Gosling is the cocky, sultry Jared Vennett (Ryan Gosling), who also acts as the narrator. Michael Baum (Steve Carell), a disillusioned Wall Street-er is astounded by the stupidity and ego of big banks and the Federal Reserve. Jamie Shipley (Finn Wittrock) and Charlie Geller (John Magaro) are two upstarts who need the help of their mentor, retired investment banker, Ben Rickert (Brad Pitt), to get a seat at the big table.
The Big Short feels like a horror film. My mouth hung open. I had goose bumps. I felt nauseated by the hubris and unscrupulous behaviour of economists, ratings agencies, and financial advisors. But cleverly, director and co-writer, Adam McKay, provides relief through dark humour, and by using cameos from celebrities like Margot Robbie, Anthony Bourdain and Selena Gomez to explain difficult jargon. Vennet asks the viewer: “Mortgage backed securities. Sub prime loans. Tranches. Does it make you feel bored or stupid? Well it’s supposed to. Wall Street loves to use confusing names to make you think only they can do what they do, or even better, for you just to leave them the fuck alone.”
You will hate yourself for rooting for these protagonists, for experiencing a perverse pleasure in wanting the nuclear bomb to hit the economy, for them to make their billions. Because, perhaps, you feel that the J.P. Morgans, the Morgan Stanleys, the Deutche Banks, the Goldman Sachses, and the Lehman Brothers of the world deserved it. That the governments who let it happen and should have known better, had it coming. It’s easy to forget the millions of ordinary people who paid the price, literally, through bailing out these banks; the people who lost their homes, jobs, and pensions.
Bale has been nominated for an Oscar as best supporting actor for his role as the nerdy, erratic, brilliant Burry, who spends his days wearing shorts and flip-flops to the office, while blasting death metal as he makes mind-bending calculations on spreadsheets. But it really is Steve Carell who delivers the standout performance in the film as the acerbic, embittered Michael Baum, whose moral conscience led him to try and warn authorities about the housing bubble.
The Big Short is a must-watch for anyone who believes that the system of white monopoly capital f*cked us, and for those who have refused to believe it. Don’t eat beforehand. You’ll want to throw up.
Director: Adam McKay
Cast: Ryan Gosling, Christian Bale, Steve Carell, Brad Pitt, Finn Wittrock, John Magaro
Rating: 4½ out of 5
SA release date: 15 January 2016