Movie Review: “The Big Short”

Orion Rummler, Editor-in-Chief •

“The Big Short” drags its audience, kicking and screaming, into financial literacy with self-aware humor, dry narration and a slew of pointed celebrity appearances. However, financial literacy comes at a price: knowing how much Wall Street really screwed us over in 2007.

America’s Great Recession is brought to trial in this two-hour exposé of everything from big banks to CDO managers to the U.S. government itself. However, despite its disillusioned nature and polysyllabic material, “The Big Short” offers viewers an emotional lesson on the value of caring about people. Money can only make the world go ‘round if people pay attention to how it is being used, and how it’s screwing people over. Money for money’s sake can’t sustain humanity by itself; and greed only leads to fraud and short-sightedness. And the people who pay for that shortsighted greed are usually the people who can’t afford it.

Christian Bale, Ryan Gosling, Brad Pitt and Steve Carell steer the lead roles in this movie with both hands. This all-star cast of accomplished actors has more than enough star power to actually convince people that they should watch a movie about subprime mortgage rates. What’s more, these actors have the experience necessary to convey the moral ambiguity and depth of these lead characters, who are all based on real people. “The Big Short” itself is based on the 2010 non-fiction book by the same name. The book’s author, Michael L. Lewis, is a financial journalist as well as an introspective non-fiction author.

The real-world aspects of this movie are immediately palpable in the storytelling elements that pervade every scene. Dry humor coupled with quick-cut shots and rapid zoom-ins leave the audience running alongside the plot of the story–struggling to keep up, but interested all the same. Despite this quick pace, the film often puts on the brakes in order to explain financial terminology or technical jargon that could potentially get in the way of delivering its fundamental message. And that message is a simple one: despite our society’s obsession with money, most of us don’t understand it or pay attention to the bigger picture of how it’s used. And caring about the bigger picture essentially equates to caring about other people as much as we care about making money.

Despite the definite moral compass of “The Big Short,” the main characters themselves are hardly clear-cut good guys. As these men realize the mortgage backed security system and the entire U.S. banking system are completely fraudulent, they take what they can via betting against the American economy. This means they’ll all be filthy rich–as the rest of the nation’s financial market collapses. These men know that people are about to lose their retirement funds, pensions, jobs, saving accounts, houses, and lives.

As these characters dive deeper into the crooked world of triple-AAA rated bonds and private-label MBS, the primary moral question of the movie becomes clear: are these characters noble for investigating what the rest of the world has chosen to ignore, or are they selfish for knowingly profiting from it?

Instead of answering that question directly, the film encourages its audience to make its own judgement call. What’s more, the film succeeds in enabling the audience to make a nuanced and informed moral decision, instead of reducing the question to a trite and self-contained answer. Mark Baum, a main character in the movie who represents the real-life Steve Eisman, offers hypocritical views that suggest each protagonist in “The Big Short” is morally ambiguous in his own right. Baum is the last character to sell his shorts–to bet against the American economy-and he goes out with more than one F bomb about the industry’s lack of responsibility.

Despite his newly shaken lack of faith in humanity, he still begrudgingly chooses to profit from the impending national economic collapse. Baum knows that once he makes that choice, he’ll be “just like the rest of them.” But that still doesn’t stop him from scraping the last dollars out of a broken system.

In a very real way, there is no right answer to the moral question that “The Big Short” poses to its audience. The economic collapse was bound to happen, and Baum and the other protagonists had no way of stopping it. They were arguably just slightly more informed pawns on the same chessboard as the rest of us. Even if their actions are reprehensible, the film leaves the audience with a last, definitive message. The real corruption lies in the orchestrators of the recession themselves–the banks.

This final lesson, which avoids pedanticism through incredible acting and a genuine empathy for the havoc the recession caused so many people, ends the movie on a bleak outlook. There are no heroes or winners in this film, even if a couple guys managed to get rich in the face of a global economic disaster.

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