I do not grasp what Hedge Fund Managers do, or what Collateralized Debt Obligations (CODs), Credit Default Swaps, Mortgage Backed Securities (MPS) and subprime mortgages are, and what it means to “short” something, but director Adam McCay’s THE BIG SHORT based on Michael Lewis’ book is an excellent film - both comedic and forcefully tragic with many fine actors making this a movie that is both entertaining and deceptively poignant. Surprisingly we do get to understand a lot of what was going on in the fiscal system without having to take a course in the particulars. This is accomplished through visuals - quick flashes of TV shows, cinema and pop stars, artworks, news headlines, sports figures, etc. all subliminally flashing before our eyes embedding the culture of money into our psyches. Throughout the film, there are witty respites whereby the camera exits the narrative, and various actors in wildly strange settings explain Wall Street jargon with idiosyncratic humor to make the “wheeling and dealing” more comprehensible.
I left the theater with an abysmal feeling of sadness, my voice cracking and tears in my eyes - not wanting to betray my emotions and my fierce anger at a capitalist system gone completely awry; rigged and fraudulent in handing the money of everyday working people whose pensions, domiciles, and livelihoods were placed into the hands of manipulative, raptor-like greedy banks and money managers. Billions - not millions - of dollars are just abstract numbers to be gambled with as the “party” keeps blasting upwards and onwards, monetary gains piling up, until it all implodes with aftershocks eventually destroying the income, employment and shuttering the homes of millions in the US and globally.
Many of the main characters are based on real people who worked for Lehman Brothers, Morgan Stanley and Bear Stearns among other firms. Christian Bale is terrific as Dr. Michael Burry, a Cassandra-like figure, an eccentric - characterized by walking around barefooted - who foresaw the mortgage collapse early on, watching banks bundle mortgages which were being given AAA ratings by Moody’s and Standard and Poor’s without proper examination of the underlying financial integrity of the lenders and borrowers. Burry decides to “short” - to bet on a future housing crisis debacle and is ultimately proven correct.
Steve Carell portrays Mark Baum, an irascible individual, who was one of the few conscience stricken players in the “money game”, trying to make participants aware of the looming future cataclysm, but also wrestling with his own hypocrisy in personally profiting from the 2008 world economic bankruptcy. He is an anguished “truth teller” antithetical to most characters engaging in this closed world of financial gains and losses, whose egos get propped up by the insubstantial glint of wealth.
The director McCay includes every type of trader - from self-centered, sophomoric “masters of the universe” to those with some integrity and concern for their clients. The editing is quick and incredibly entertaining for a subject that could easily put many of us to sleep. In THE BIG SHORT we are made painfully aware of the collusion of institutions and governmental agencies, all profiting from the deception that the housing market was one of the best and most secure investments to be made. We see the social and human ramifications of this delusion that brought world markets to the brink of financial collapse.
Unlike previous films about Wall Street, this is a true story - a tale that is still resonating in our minds and pocketbooks. Many ordinary persons were encouraged and seduced by the easy access to home ownership, low interest rates that often skyrocketed a few years later to the bewilderment of landlords and tenants who had to flee their properties. This drama showed how the Banks were “brought down“, but today we are still wondering were they ever punished? Cynicism persists as new ploys and risky gambits continue to be placed before a gullible public by corruptible institutions functioning without legislated safeguards. THE BIG SHORT is a powerful indictment of Wall Street engineering of avarice - profiting the few and afflicting the lifestyles of the majority of Americans that they are called upon to serve.