“The Big Short”: What They Didn’t Want to Tell You
According to BoxOffice.com, Paramount’s new release The Big Short, starring Brad Pitt, Steve Carell, and Christian Bale, could be the sleeper hit of the season. The American Film Institute (AFI) has just awarded it the title “Movie of The Year” and it has already garnered more than 50 nominations in various categories from multiple organizations.
There are two distinct ways to review a film.
The first method is called the “oeuvre” approach (literally, “the work”). This method doesn’t care where the film came from, where it is going, or what evils it was intended to reveal to the world. It simply asks one question: is the film any good?
That one is easy to answer. The Big Short is not merely good; it is great. First, you have a cast to die for. Steve Carell never gets proper credit for his dramatic chops (probably because he started his career in comedy), but here, he gives the performance of his life. Using mainly facial expressions, he manages to come across, for brief but powerful moments, as the disbelieving conscience of an entire nation.
Christian Bale, known for his ability to disappear into virtually any role, bestows long-overdue recognition on the character of Dr. Michael Burry. Burry was one of only a handful of individuals to see what was actually going on behind the scenes when the financial world and its alleged overseers went barking mad. Ryan Gosling and Brad Pitt also appear in the film, but more as eye candy; their performances and characters are less memorable.
Adam McKay, the man who has garnered the largest number of award nominations overall, appears on the scene as a double threat—he both adapted the screenplay from Michael Lewis’ book of the same name and directed the film. Trust me: you will be hearing a lot more about this guy in the future.
If common wisdom says that a film about Wall Street, the markets, and collateralized mortgage-backed securities must be dull as toast, then the common wisdom has not experienced this film. Using a number of odd techniques and narrative devices not seen since the Monty Python crew hung up their spurs, the film engages you, the viewer, from the very first scene—and it keeps you glued right to the end.
The Story Behind the Story…
The second way to review a film is called the “artiste” approach (meaning the “artist” or creator). Here, we suddenly become very focused indeed on why the film was made, where it came from, and what its true intentions really were.
This is where things get interesting…
Clearly, McKay’s intentions were to use Lewis’ book as a sort of blackboard to teach the public how Wall Street works, how Wall Street thinks, how government thinks, why the 2007/2008 mess happened, and why it is very likely to happen all over again.
Films with a message don’t often become hits. McKay knew this going in and worked hard to make the lesson an integral part of the entertainment experience. He had to walk a very fine line to do that.
Mainly, McKay had to avoid getting the audience angry with themselves for failing to realize that not only the Street, but also the officials and regulators charged with overseeing the Street, were robbing them blind. This state of subliminal confusion is called “cognitive dissonance” and is defined, in general terms, as “the mental stress or discomfort experienced by an individual who holds two or more contradictory beliefs, ideas, or values.” (Source: Wikipedia, last accessed January 4, 2016.)
It does not make for happy film-going.
To accomplish his goal, Andrew McKay essentially took the story of one of the biggest and most criminal economic disasters in the history of the world and made it seem almost upbeat and humorous. The audience is deliberately made to feel like bad things in that period were happening to someone else—and never actually to them. That’s an impressive feat. McKay truly earned those award nominations.
What Did the Movie Leave Out?
Interestingly, McKay stops his narrative exactly at the point where Washington steps in and launches its quantitative easing (QE) program. Was this deliberate?
The most likely answer is, yes. By carefully picking that specific endpoint, McKay avoided the debate about whether or not declaring the banks “too big to fail”—and making the government the ultimate buyer of its own debt, much the same way a tiger shark eats its own young—made the problem better or worse?
For newcomer McKay, clearly wishing to avoid getting on anyone’s enemy list, this was probably the right decision. Unfortunately, this choice short-circuits the film’s attempt to tell the entire tale, warts and all.
Dr. Michael Burry himself recently weighed in on this precise topic:
To which observation, editorialist Michael Pento just recently added his own warning: “…as the market begins to see the forest behind the high-yield trees, it will realize that after seven years of ZIRP and QE, the true bubble exists in the entire universe of fixed income.” (Source: “Global Super-Bubbles Begin To Burst,” King World News, January 10, 2016.)
Thumbs Up or Thumbs Down?
At the end of the day, The Big Short is a truly great film, a superb screenplay adaptation, wonderfully entertaining, boasting some of the best work ever from Carell and Bale and establishing McKay as a future force not to be reckoned with in Hollywood. Whether its educational aspirations succeed is, however, another matter entirely.
One thing pretty much everyone agrees on, even though it was glossed over in the script, is that using QE to fix the problem was a little like using gasoline to put out a fire. I guess we are going to have to wait for Michael Lewis’ next book to see how that tale ends—unless, of course, we each end up living the consequences from within the confines of our own personal reality show?