If you’re sickened by fatcat bankers and confused by their financial practices, then The Big Short, based on a true story, will provide enlightenment. You are likely to leave the cinema stunned and angry, but also moved and invigorated by this extraordinary, powerful film, which has been nominated for five Oscars.
Steve Carell and Christian Bale both excel as two of the ‘outsiders and weirdos’ who saw the financial crash of 2007/8 coming and bet against the big American banks.
With its motor-mouth voiceover and dizzying cross-cutting of faux documentary footage with jerky hand-held camera close-ups The Big Short demands your attention and doesn’t let go for the next two hours. Smart, knowing, foul-mouthed and funny, this banking history lesson (March 2005 – September 2008) makes sure it hammers its point home, sometimes using unlikely ‘economists’ such as ‘a girl in a bubble bath’ or actress/singer Selena Gomez to explain sub-prime mortgage loans or synthetic C.D.O.s.
The Big Short is mostly narrated by Jared Vennett (Ryan Gosling), a hot-shot bond salesmen who becomes one of the ‘rebels’ who take on the banks and invest in economic failure. He describes how, in the 1980s, bankers went ‘from the country club to the strip club’ after the introduction of mortgage-backed security. The money ‘came raining down’ until one day ‘it all came crashing down’.
In 2005 Jared solicits the backing of hedge fund manager Mark Baum (Steve Carell) and his team, who investigate what is happening in the US housing market. They interview bankers who offer ‘ninja’ loans (no income, no jobs) and the people who take out these loans. They discover that even when the banks ‘lose’, they win, creating Collateral Debt Organisers (C.D.O.s), which Baum describes as ‘dogshit wrapped in catshit.’
Carell, so memorable in 2015’s Foxcatcher, gives another searing performance as Baum: loud, foul-mouthed and rude, but also deeply moral, sickened by the fraud and corruption he sees. His face, as he realises that the whole economy might collapse, is a black hole of disgust and despair.
Equally good is Oscar-nominated Christian Bale as Michael Berry, an eccentric numbers genius, who stands up to the big banks and holds his nerve. Socially awkward, he listens to thrash metal and takes out his frustrations on his drum kit.
Elsewhere, ‘two guys in a garage band hedge fund’ seek the help of Ben (Brad Pitt), a retired banker. They, too, come to the conclusion that the banking system is crazy and corrupt: ‘it’s like 2 + 2 = fish’. Or, as Jared summarises, ‘there’s some shitty shit going on but it’s fuelled by stupidity.’ To find out just how dumb money really is, the various ‘rebels’ converge of Las Vegas for the American Securitization Forum and meet some ‘real solid gold assholes’.
When the housing bubble bursts and the financial collapse happens Jared is the only one to feel triumphant to be proved right. Baum agonises over making a profit from other people’s misery. He knows that ‘average people are the ones who are going to pay for this, because they always do’.
In a thoroughly depressing coda, the narrator tells us that only one banker was prosecuted after the crisis, which was instead blamed on immigrants, poor people and teachers. The figures are shocking: $5 trillion disappeared; 8 million people lost their jobs; 6 million people lost their homes.