Here’s one of the smartest films of 2015, from one of the most unlikely sources: Anchorman writer-director Adam McKay’s The Big Short attempts to break down the ins and outs of the 2008 financial crisis for those of us who don’t know a CDO from a CDS, and does so in wildly successful fashion.
What, exactly, is a synthetic CDO? Well, here’s pop star Selena Gomez (along with distinguished economist Richard H. Thaler) to explain it to us over a game of blackjack in one of the film’s near-brilliant cutaways.
In other scenes, Margot Robbie discusses subprime mortgages while taking a bubble bath and Anthony Bourdain explains collateralized debt obligation while preparing seafood as the film takes minutes-long breaks to explain key factors in its story through simple analogies.
It’s asides like this – the careful ways that McKay and co-writer Charles Randolph, adapting the book of the same name by Michael Lewis (Moneyball), break down the inner workings of the financial system bound to collapse for causal viewers – that elevate The Big Short into something special.
It may not be the most exciting or nuanced film of 2015, but it’s one of the most important: everyone needs to understand what happened and how it happened in order for it not to happen again in the future. Unfortunately, the film – forecasting the current state of the economy – doesn’t exactly end on a hopeful note.
Like 2013’s The Wolf of Wall Street, the film takes place inside a financial system that few can fully comprehend, and those few tend to exploit. Unlike that film’s Jacob Belfort, the heroes here have a conscience – they feel bad even as they’re profiting from a system that eventually bankrupts the common man.
The Big Short follows four sets of characters that were able to predict the financial crisis in 2008, and profit from it by “shorting” the market – betting against the CDOs (collateralized debt obligations, or groups of loans) that had been given top ratings but were in fact ticking time bombs.
Dr. Michael Burry, played here by Christian Bale, was the real-life figure who got the ball rolling: he crunched the numbers inside the unread-CDOs and predicted not only what would happen, but when it would happen. When he approached the banks looking to short the market – generally thought to be one of the most stable at the time (who doesn’t pay their mortgage?) – with hundreds of millions from his investment group, they were all too happy to take his money.
When slick banker Jared Vennett (Ryan Gosling, who also narrates the movie) catches wind of Burry’s plan, he buys into it and starts looking for investors of his own to short the market with him. That includes Mark Baum (Steve Carrell) and his team (Hamish Linklater, Rafe Spall, and Jeremy Strong), pessimists who catch onto Vennett’s self-interest but also buy in to his logic.
Then there’s fledgling hedge fund managers Jamie Shipley (Finn Wittrock) and Charlie Geller (John Magaro), who catch wind of Vennett’s plan and look to take advantage of it with the help of mentor and former Wall Street trader Ben Rickert (Brad Pitt).
Pitt’s Rickert is the lone voice of reason here: while the other characters are happy to profit from their actions here, he warns them what will happen if they’re right: total economic collapse. And, of course, they are right. But as we’re watching these characters predict and prey upon that collapse, we wonder if we should be on their side or not: they are, after all, part of the system.
It’s Carrell’s Baum that I found most endearing: investigating the state of the mortgage economy first-hand, his blood comes to a boil as he begins to understand the full extent of what’s going on.
There are CDOs and then synthetic CDOs, side-bets on the original mortgages that can add up ad infinitum. A single mortgage can be packaged and repackaged as many times as the traders can sell it, generating many times its original value, and no one seems to care or realize what happens when it defaults and the whole house of cards comes tumbling down.
“Why are they confessing?” Baum asks at one point, referring to a pair of Florida mortgage bankers who have intentionally given out poor loans to maximize their profits. “They aren’t confessing,” his team tells him. “They’re bragging.”
The system itself is designed to be so complex that even those inside of it don’t fully comprehend it. “Sound confusing?” Gosling’s character asks us. “That’s the point.” But what The Big Short does exceptionally well is explain the basics in layman’s terms. Not everyone needs to see the film, and those already in the know probably won’t get as much out of it as the rest of us. But those who need to see it, really need to see it.
The Big Short is must-see stuff, one of the smartest and most important (along with Spotlight) Hollywood films of 2015. Its only flaw is that it isn’t always as exciting or cinematic as we might want it to be, but that’s a flaw we can forgive considering what else it accomplishes.