Director : Adam McKay
Year Of Release : 2015
Principal Cast : Christian Bale, Brad Pitt, Ryan Golsing, Steve Carell, John Magaro, Finn Wittrock, Rafe Spall, Jeremy Strong, Marisa Tomei, Melissa Leo, Stanley Wong, Byron Mann, Tracey Letts, Karen Gillan, Max Greenfield.
Approx Running Time : 130 Minutes
Synopsis: Four denizens of the world of high-finance predict the credit and housing bubble collapse of the mid-2000s, and decide to take on the big banks for their greed and lack of foresight.
The 2008 Global Financial Crisis, set off by the collapse of America’s housing market, has become one of the largest cautionary tales of financial mismanagement since the collapse of Wall Street that kicked off the Great Depression. Of course, the fact that those “too big to fail” banks didn’t fail, and effectively got away with their mess scott-free is galling enough, but as time goes on and the stories surrounding the sub-prime mortgage disaster come to the light, it makes sense that the whole disaster becomes fodder for film and television producers to suckle at the teat of the fractured American Dream.
Hedge-fund manager Michael Burry (Christian Bale) has crunched the numbers: he’s convinced America’s seemingly stable housing market is on the verge of collapse, and it is. However, his investors don’t see it that way, and after he invests over a billion dollars of their money into – and I’m no financial guru, so this is the best way I can explain it – “insurance against credit/mortgage defaults”. Meanwhile, New York trader Jarred Vennet (Ryan Golsing) has learned of the situation, and is shopping around deals to make hundreds of millions of dollars from the financial collapse coming America’s way; among those he gets in on the action are hedge-fund manager Mark Baum (Steve Carell), and his team. Newbie finance traders Charlie Geller (John Magaro) and Jamie Shipley (Finn Wittrock), also hear about the trades and want to get in on the action, so they recruit retired banker Ben Rickert (Brad Pitt) to get their feet in the door.
You’d never get an argument from virtually anybody that America’s financial systems are rotten to the core. Just how rotten has been examined in multiple documentaries, including Inside Job, but to my knowledge this is the first fictionalized version of GFC involvement to come down the Hollywood pipe. The film approaches the impending disaster with a multi-pronged moral focus; almost all those in the film who discover the American economy is about to collapse are appalled at just how bad things are, reacting with horror, disgust, and some a sense of glee that they stand to make a fortune regardless.
The Big Short is based off a book of the same name by former financial journalist Michael Lewis, with the screenplay by both Adam McKay and Charles Rudolph, which engages in hugely heavy bank-speak with people looking worried about dollar signs and paper-trails. McKay wisely uses real-life personalities, from Selena Gomez to Margot Robbie, to “dumb down” the explanations of exactly what all the terms and concepts involve for those of us who don’t have a degree in economics, and to the level I actually understood what was going on it matters little. The film is sold on the strength of the cast, led by Gosling’s snappy, Michael-Douglas-in-Wall-Street character giving us his smarmy “gotcha” plan to rip billions from the big Wall Street banks, to Carell’s tortured banker, to Brad Pitt’s disenfranchised former institution stalwart. Nobody steps out of line, giving committed and compelling performances, and the film is richer for it.
McKay’s direction feels more documentarian than traditionally narrative, and he uses this “fly on the wall” approach to give what would normally be a fairly dry and dusty premise – it’s basically bankers talking about money, but in a cool and stressful manner – a real kick in the pants. Injecting tension and emotion into a scenario such as the one in which most of America’s big banks collapsed probably seems like the most redundant thing ever, but magnifying a few core characters it brings the magnitude of the problem onto a level people can actually connect with. We’re talking about billions of dollars here (the GFC was estimated to have wiped about six trillion dollars off the value of the US economy alone) and while numbers like that tend to make people’s eyes glaze over, McKay keeps the level of interest up simply by making the characters interesting to watch.
The Big Short is a good film. It turns a complex and dense historical event into something people can watch and feel the equal of – you never feel stupid while watching it – and this is a marvellous outcome. As I remarked in my Inside Job review, people need to be angry about what happened back in ’08, as they should be to this day with the ripples of that event continuing to be felt in places like Greece and many developing nations. The Big Short is a roller-coaster of a ride where you actually want the characters to have a good outcome, and to a degree they do, but the personal cost morally is what makes the film such an incendiary biographical picture.