ESTIMATED READING TIME: TEN MINUTES
****THIS REVIEW CONTAINS SPOILERS!!! CONSIDER THIS YOUR OFFICIAL SPOILER ALERT!!!****
MY RATING: SEE IT IN THE THEATRE!
"IT AIN'T WHAT YOU DON'T KNOW THAT GETS YOU IN TROUBLE, IT'S WHAT YOU KNOW FOR SURE THAT JUST AIN'T SO." - MARK TWAIN
The Big Short, directed by Adam Mckay and written by McKay and Charles Randolph (based on the book The Big Short by Michael Lewis), is the story of a collection of men who foresaw the financial collapse of 2007/2008 and bet big against the housing bubble and Wall Street and won.
The Big Short is a truly remarkable film, without a doubt one of the very best of the year. It takes the difficult and complex subject of finance in general, and the collapse of 2007/2008 in particular, and not only breaks it down into understandable pieces, but does so in an extremely entertaining and insightful way.
When The Big Short ended and the credits rolled, I was curious as to who directed the film. I was stunned when I saw that Adam McKay, of all people, had directed it. Prior to The Big Short, Adam McKay was better known as Will Ferrell's director, having been at the helm for the Ferrell films Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy, Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby, Stepbrothers, and Anchorman 2 : The Legend Continues. In my mind, directing a singular comedic talent like Will Ferrell amounts to turning on the cameras and getting out of the way. It was previously unthinkable that a director with Adam McKay's resume would have the skill to make a film as impeccably crafted as The Big Short. McKay's direction is nothing short of masterful. McKay is able to flawlessly weave together the multiple, complicated narratives of the film, all while never losing the mesmerizing pace of the story. He shows a tremendously deft touch even with the most minor of scenes and lets the visuals tell as much of the story as the dialogue.
There is a subtlety and specificity to McKay's direction that speaks volumes to his talent and vision. Two sequences stand out in this respect. The first is when we see a brief daytime long shot of Las Vegas with a freeway in the foreground where a homeless man urinates in the shadows of the traffic. The man, with his shopping cart filled with his possessions by his side, is barely visible in the shot, but that is the point, because those obliviously driving by him on the freeway above are blind to his plight and the one that awaits them as well.
The second shot is of a man and his family, who we meet very briefly earlier in the film, evicted from their rental home because of a landlord who gets foreclosed upon. The family now live in their van parked at a convenience store. This scene, which is visuals accompanied by a voice-over not directly connected to the action, shows a little boy running away from the family van. The shot is maybe three seconds long, but it stops your heart it is so well done. This shot cinematically conveys to the viewer absolutely everything they need to know, and all without a word. It shows how vulnerable and dangerous life is for people on the margins in America. My reaction to that brief shot was visceral…how could it not be? The shot is so quick you can only react to it on a gut level, and at that level, you instantly fear that the little boy will run into traffic. That shot connects the bigger story of The Big Short, to the human story of those devastated by the housing collapse. That little boy is in danger and it is because of the shenanigans of the big banks. These two shots/sequences are the type of small details that make all the difference in a film, and they highlight Adam McKay's exquisite direction of The Big Short.
The acting in the film is solid across the board. Ryan Gosling easily does the best work of his career as Jared Vennett, a bond salesman at Deutsche bank. He gives a funny, dynamic and charismatic performance that is the engine driving the film forward. Steve Carrell does exhaustive work playing the unlikable but ultimately compelling Michael Baum, the manager of a hedge fund whom Vennett approaches to invest against the housing market. Christian Bale gives a layered and intricate performance as Dr. Michael Burry, the eccentrically awkward mastermind who uncovers the fraud at the heart of the housing bubble. Brad Pitt brings a surprising gravity and humanity to the film as former JP Morgan trader Ben Rickert, and acts as a counterbalance to Gosling's fast talking and ego-driven Vennet. The rest of the cast is superb as well, with Hamish Linklater, Rafe Spall, Jeremy Strong, Max Greenfield and Billy Magnussen among others who all do standout work.
"TRUTH IS LIKE POETRY, AND MOST PEOPLE HATE POETRY" - OVERHEARD AT A WASHINGTON, D.C. BAR
I saw The Big Short in the theatre on the same day that I saw Spotlight. This was just by coincidence, but in hindsight it is easy to see that the movies are actually companion pieces. They have a lot in common as both The Big Short and Spotlight are flawlessly crafted films. Both pictures are superbly written, acted, directed, shot and edited. In addition both The Big Short and Spotlight explore similar themes, namely institutional blindness, perverted forms of religion, and the moral and ethical rot at the center of American life.
"TO SEE WHAT IS IN FRONT OF ONE'S NOSE NEEDS A CONSTANT STRUGGLE." - GEORGE ORWELL
The institutional blindness on display in The Big Short runs not only through Wall Street, but also the media and Washington. When you hear talking heads on television say that no one saw the financial collapse of 2007-2008 coming, realize that this is just one more form of that blindness. Hindsight is usually 20/20, but not when you are unable to admit you were catastrophically wrong in the first place. As the great American Prophet (or is it Profit?) Dr. Phil is fond of saying, "you can't change what you don't acknowledge"…you're god-damned right about that, good doctor. Besides the characters at the center of The Big Short, there were other people who saw the collapse coming too, but they were the "wrong" people, so no one listened to them. Hell, even a clueless dope like me saw it coming. Ask my poor clients who had to listen to me ramble on and on about it day after day. Of course, most of those clients, and most of my friends, just nodded politely at my ramblings and ignored them…and lost a ton of money. I, and a very tight circle of friends, ended up being right not because we were geniuses, God and you dear reader know that isn't true, but rather because we weren't infected by the mania brought on by the lure of easy money that had gripped, and still grips, the nation. One of the glaring symptoms of this mania is that it brings with it a greed-induced frenzy that makes it, to paraphrase Orwell, 'hard to see what is right in front of your nose'.
The institutional blindness at the core of American capitalism comes from years of uncritical thinking from the people inside its foundational institutions. No one at any level of the American capitalism food chain, from University economics and finance departments, to the media to government to Wall street, dare question the basic premise of American capitalism because it has become a most-holy, sacred religion. This religion deems insatiable greed not only healthy for the economy, but a "good" and worthy attribute for everyone. This new church of American capitalism found a cinematic saint in Gordon Gekko in Oliver Stone's 1987 film Wall Street, but St. Gordon was just preaching the gospel of the semi-non-fictional Saint Ronald Reagan from the early 1980's. Both St. Gordon and St. Ronnie were followed by free market saint and snake oil salesman extraordinaire, Bill Clinton in the 90's, who cleared the way for "unfettered, free-market capitalism" to take a giant shit on all of us.
"THE CAPITALIST WILL SELL YOU THE ROPE WITH WHICH YOU INTEND TO HANG HIM" - VLADIMIR LENNIN
Ask anyone with an advanced degree in economics or finance if during their long years of schooling they ever had to take a course on an alternative economic system to capitalism. The answer will be a resounding "no". That is not to say that socialism or communism or any other "ism" is better than American capitalism. But it is to say that when people are taught, or more accurately, conditioned, to NOT think critically about their economic system (or anything else for that matter), then that system stops being an economic one and starts being a religious one. Religion is based on faith and to its faithful adherents, is beyond reproach…see Spotlight as evidence of that. When something as profane as American capitalism becomes sanctified, corruption and collapse are sure to follow, just as it did with Soviet "socialism". With religion comes magical thinking, and so it is with American capitalism, which must contort reality in order to reinforce its faith based belief system. So we get deformed and distorted economic information from the powers that be because they must keep the house of cards standing at all cost. The Big Short humorously shows how while the underlying mortgages crumbled, the mortgage backed securities made up of those same bad mortgages actually went up. That is what happens in religion when reality doesn't conform to the sacred belief system, magical thinking kicks in and…MIRACLES OCCUR…up can become down, black can become white, or as those of us living in reality say…FRAUD HAPPENS. This charade of American capitalism can only last so long, as reality has a funny way of cutting through the bullshit of magical thinking and kicking you right in the nuts…just ask Lehman Brothers or Bear Stearns.
"TELL ME THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN STUPID AND ILLEGAL AND I'LL HAVE MY WIFE'S BROTHER ARRESTED" - JARED VENNET, THE BIG SHORT
See, in American capitalism, fraud is not a bug, but a feature, it is baked into the cake. Fraud and magical thinking are at the very heart of American capitalism. The fraud that runs rampant is easy to see. We have all of the big banks rigging bids on municipal bonds and bilking every city in the nation for billions of dollars. Then we have Royal Bank of Scotland, HSBC, JP Morgan Chase, Barclays, Bank of America, UBS and Citigroup and the LIBOR scandal, where they manipulated the world's interest rates and in so doing a good portion of the world's economy. Then there is the fraud on display in The Big Short where big banks defrauded their customers in order to cover their asses as the mortgage market tumbled. This doesn't even touch upon the criminality of banks laundering money for drug cartels, or rate-rigging the currency rates.
In all of these scandals, no one was sent to prison. No one was held criminally liable. The Banks simply paid a fine, sometimes in the billions of dollars, but never had to admit to wrong doing. This is the casino-gulag business model, banks make $10 billion in fraud and only pay $1 billion in fines. That is a pretty good deal if you can get it…and the big banks know how to get it.
I had a conversation recently with an older friend, very conservative, who told me that he was "sick and tired of all the big bank bashing" because Wall Street "creates a lot jobs and a lot of wealth". I nodded politely so as to not offend his religious belief in American capitalism. The reality is that Wall Street, like Las Vegas, "creates" nothing, but they do "engineer" more gambling opportunities where the house always wins, and the concept of "the common good" never has to rear its ugly head.
"THE IGNORANT MIND, WITH ITS INFINITE AFFLICTIONS, PASSIONS AND EVILS, IS ROOTED IN THE THREE POISONS. GREED, ANGER AND DELUSION." - BODHIDHARMA
This taps into the moral and ethical rot at the center of America. Wall Street and Main Street, both infected with an insatiable greed, no longer invest, they speculate. The myopic greed and lure of easy money that has infested America makes corporations and regular people cut off their nose to spite their face, all in the name of higher short-term earnings and to the detriment of the long term, the common good and common sense. This is no way to run a company, or a country…but it's what is happening all around us. We have CEO's who mine their company for short term profits, which often times includes profit through fraud, in order to appease shareholders and get their bonuses before moving on, all the while ignoring the long term health of their business. The same is true of government, where politicians ignore the long term health of the country in favor of the short term health of their political careers and the next election. Regular Jane's and Joe's did the same thing by "flipping" houses and trying to run with the wolves on Wall Street…but found out the hard way that it is a rigged game. Now, they do the same thing in a different way by going into debt just to pay their bills month to month. This myopic approach to finance, politics and life, can only last so long before the bill comes due. Robbing Peter to pay Paul only ends up, at best, with either Peter or Paul breaking your thumbs, or at worst, with the two of them burying you in a shallow grave out in the desert.
The Church of American Capitalism and the moral and ethical rot that comes with it, has also infected American Christianity in the form of the "Prosperity Gospel". This Prosperity Gospel is the perfect symbol for the lascivious and lecherous greed, that like a cancer, has metastasized through all walks of American life and bastardized Christianity into little more than Santa Claus for adults. Turning greed into spirituality and religion is the last straw in the fall of the moral underpinnings of any nation and its people. Gordon Gekko once said, "Greed is good", but the Prosperity Gospel of the Church of American Capitalism teaches , "Greed is God".
"WHENEVER I WATCH TV AND SEE THOSE POOR STARVING KIDS ALL OVER THE WORLD, I CAN'T HELP BUT CRY. I MEAN I'D LOVE TO BE SKINNY LIKE THAT, BUT NOT WITH ALL THOSE FLIES AND DEATH AND STUFF." - MARIAH CAREY
The other religion, besides the church of American capitalism and greed, so masterfully on display in The Big Short, is the uniquely American religion of Celebrity. Director McKay wisely uses famous people to talk directly to the audience and explain complicated financial terms and processes. This has a dual effect, one, it breaks down the complex language of finance which Wall Street uses to make people think only they can do this stuff, terms like Collateralized Debt Obligations (CDO), Mortgage Backed Security (MBS), and Credit Default Swap (CDS), into language the layman can understand. Two, it surreptitiously tweaks the audience for being so mindless as to only pay attention when a celebrity is talking. The celebrities involved, Margot Robbie, Selena Gomez and chef Anthony Bourdain, all get the point across both on the surface level of explaining the information, but also on the subversive level of proving the audience as suckers for the famous, a.k.a. high priests and priestesses of the Church of American Celebrity. If Collateralized Debt Obligations, Mortgage Backed Securities and Credit Default Swaps were explained by some dry academic, people would, as they've been trained to do, instantly tune out, but when it is done by Margot Robbie in a bubble bath…attention will most surely be paid.
"WE FORGET THAT THE WATER CYCLE AND THE LIFE CYCLE ARE ONE." - JACQUE COUSTEAU
Speaking of bubble baths…at the end of the movie, there is an update on what the main characters are up to since their big short paid off. We are informed that Dr. Michael Burry, who closed his hedge fund right after the collapse of 2007/08, now focuses his investments on one commodity…water. This is pretty interesting because running throughout the film there is a very subtle subtext about water. If you watch the film again, pay attention when water is in a shot (like Ms. Robbie's bubble bath cameo), what characters drink it and when they drink it. There is one scene where Dr. Burry, while talking about shorting the housing market, chokes on a swig of water from a bottle, which, knowing the context of his later investing work, is very intriguing. Another scene involves a swimming pool with an unwanted reptilian guest lurking in it behind an abandoned Florida house. The house no doubt abandoned because of the "gully" (definition of a "gully" is "a water worn ravine") in the housing market. That scene is juxtaposed with a scene of a lavish swimming pool at Caesar's Palace, which is populated by investment bankers (from Goldman Sachs!!) and a woman from the SEC. Gators, bankers and feds…oh my!!! Water is the hidden secret within The Big Short, and the secret about water in today's world is that it will soon replace oil as the commodity over which we go to war.
"EVERYONE, DEEP IN THEIR HEARTS, IS WAITING FOR THE END OF THE WORLD TO COME." - HARUKI MURAKAMI
In conclusion, The Big Short is a phenomenal, must-see film, that shows us what went catastrophically wrong back in 2007/2008, and what is still wrong with our system. It is up to us to break free from the magical thinking brought on by the Church of American capitalism, and the distraction from thinking brought on by the Church of American Celebrity, and to see the truth that sits right in front of our nose…the American financial system is not only fundamentally and structurally flawed, it is irreparably broken and untenable. The house of cards is coming down whether we are ready for it or not…it isn't a matter of if…it is a matter of when. You can either prepare for the coming tsunami* or not, that is up to you…but what you cannot do this time around...is say that no one told you it was coming.
*See what I did there? Tsunami…water? C'mon..pay attention!!!