Betting Against the House
With ominous noises on the global economy coming from finance ministers both side of the Atlantic, now’s the perfect time to remind yourself of the multiplicity of follies and criminal outrages that lead to the 2008 crash. Rooted in the American sub-prime mortgage market, a fly tip of bad debt, repackaged and sold on by high rolling gamblers (or bankers), this perfect storm of profligacy, immorality and junk capitalism, ruined lives. Not the lives of those responsible, you understand, but desperate and economically illiterate consumers snared with the promise of free money.
Adam McKay’s The Big Short tells the story with gallows humour and a fine sense of historical irony, from the perspective of a disparate group of fund managers and traders who saw it coming, “because they looked”, then moved to make a killing from the end of the world; men who expected to cash in but were still shocked by the force of the bubble bursting. It’s a movie with a conscience but no heroes, the story of how a system originally set up to be the very model of prudence and security, morphed into a besuited Las Vegas with catastrophic consequences for those clinging to the thin end of the wedge. It’s a casino that remains unreformed. You can’t even watch McKay’s movie with the consolation that this is purely historical. What applies to fascism goes double for the banking system: it was possible for this to happen, and it could happen again at any moment.
J.C. Chandor’s Margin Call ploughed the same furrow from a bank’s perspective, but for those seeking to understand the who, what and the why, McKay’s film is the superior effort. It’s blisteringly funny, featuring economic masterclasses from the likes of Margot Robbie in a bubble bath and pop star Selena Gomez on the tables in Sin City, while being highly informative. From Christian Bale’s autistic hedge fund manager, betting $1.3b of his client’s money against the run of history and every official marker, to audience proxy and delightfully indignant Steve Carrell, as the broker who follows Ryan Gosling’s tip and discovers it’s worse than anyone imagines, we get a compelling, quasi-documentary style orientation in a world of chiselled gumps masquerading as estate agents and strippers with five houses on cheap credit. “It’s time to bullshit on every fucking thing” says Jeremy Strong’s trader, a man who works out of his garage, and he’s not wrong. In a world where every control designed to protect deposits and safeguard the liquidity in the system has been removed or circumvented, up is down, black is white and wrong is right. You have to take a moment; this happened.
McKay, one-time director of Anchorman, allegedly agreed to a second slice of Ron Burgundy to get this made. That was a great bet. Taking his dramatic cues from Scorsese and his comic-realist ones from the likes of Armando Iannucci’s Thick of It, The Big Short (meaning a big bet against the market), is a disaster movie that celebrates its status as a public information film. Never afraid to flag its own dramatic shortcuts or break the forth wall to nudge the audience along, it concentrates on delivering the facts with mock sobriety and a sense of the absurd that would not be out of place in a Will Ferrell movie.
The key to engaging a general audience with a dry subject is to make it witty while doing what the bankers didn’t, namely talking up to people. You’re left both entertained and angry by the impossibly vain and self-serving characters that precipitated the disaster, while dumbfounded that such a thing could have occurred while most of us were busy looking the other way. The Big Short reconstructs a world where “2+2 = fish”; not bad shorthand for the film’s mix of hard numbers and abstract economic concepts with terrifying, and still keenly felt, real world consequences.