Starring: Christian Bale, Steve Carrell, Ryan Gosling, Brad Pitt, Finn Wittrock, John Magaro
Director: Adam MacKay
When creating a film about how financial institutions caused the biggest economic collapse of modern times, it would be simple to curtsy to the banker bashing public. People generally enjoy having their beliefs confirmed and The Big Short could have easily spent two hours showing how a bunch of greedy suited investors immorally tore the heart out of Mr and Mrs Doe’s life for profit. However, life is infinitely less straight forward than the red tops would have us believe and The Big Short uses this to create a fabulously textured byzantine narrative, littered with complex and multifaceted characters.
The chronology of the film begins a few years prior to the collapse of 2008 with socially impaired fund manager Dr Michael Burry (Bale) realising that the entire US economy is based on mortgage backed securities which are fundamentally constructed on toxic sub-prime mortgages. He then sets out to buy custom made products from all the major investment banks, essentially betting against the US economy. Although all the institutions happily take his money and laugh the moment he exits the meeting room, word gets around of his trades and broker Jared Vennett (Gosling) goes into partnership with a hedge fund headed up by Mark Baum (Carrell) to mirror Burry’s strategy. Separately two young traders Jamie Shipley (Wittrock) and Charlie Geller (Magaro) with the backing of retired trader Ben Rickert (Pitt) get wind of Burry’s investments and start their own strategy based on it.
These three threads are independently told (Bale never shares screen time with any other major character) but it never feels disjointed. In fact, it works in the films favour, handing it the ability to show the narrative from three separate angles, keeping the pace and tension high throughout.
Carrell is excellent as the angry and paranoid Baum, a man whose morals are constantly tested by the choices he has to make to profit his fund. Gosling is the closest to how the general public perceive a banker, with the arrogance and expensive suits, and is perfectly believable in the role. Bale is flawless as the awkward and difficult Burry (watch interviews with the real Michael Burry to realise how accurate Bale’s portrayal is).
What The Big Short does expertly is to confuse its audience’s morals and beliefs. The main antagonists to the banks and governments refusal to accept impending doom are bankers themselves, already wealthy individuals who would profit enormously from a global economic collapse. Yet these individuals feel like the underdogs, the ones who would fight against the great powers of the economy. But this is no Erin Brockovich, these are profit-focussed specialists whose morals have to be professionally confined to a profit and loss spreadsheet. As Rickert states with his new found morals ‘Banking reduces everything to a number’ yet he still stubbornly continues to profit wildly from the opportunity.
It also handles well the complex nature of mortgage backed financial products, falling just short of patronising its audience (Margot Robbie explains mortgage backed securities, subprime and shorting from a bath tub while drinking champagne) and educates just enough to clarify the main topics of the plot.
The Big Short succeeds in what it sets out to achieve; to educate, to entertain but also to shock and confuse. It also gently reminds us that greed is not something confined to certain professions or individuals, but simply to any of us who has the prospect of being rewarded by it, including you or I.
8 / 10