The Big Short an unpretentious portrayal of the financial crisis

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

Director: Adam McKay
Writers: Charles Randolph, Adam McKay
Starring: Christian Bale, Steve Carell, Ryan Gosling

Now that we’ve gained enough distance from the financial crisis, we’re sure to see more films like The Big Short. In the years since, films about the financial crisis have mostly been limited to documentaries with the topic occasionally coming up in character backstories or in very earnest, matter of fact dramatizations like the 2011 film Margin Call. The Big Short is definitely not a film that takes itself too seriously. It’s a lively film that has a noticeably fun time indicting the behaviour that led to the 2008 collapse.

The Big Short starts a couple years before the key event. It’s the mid-2000s and everybody in the financial industry – from investment bankers to mortgage brokers – is living large. Shady investment practices are legitimized by the widely-held belief that anything backed by mortgages is solid because “who doesn’t pay their mortgage?” One hedge fund manager, Dr. Michael Burry, begins to look into the individual mortgages that make up the mortgage-backed securities, which not many have bothered doing, and notices that they are not as reliable as they’ve been described. So Burry predicts that this credit bubble, which everyone doesn’t want to acknowledge, will burst in 2007 and begins approaching big banks to buy insurance against mortgage-backed securities. Of course, the banks are only too happy to provide this because they can make big bucks off the premiums Burry must pay while they sit pretty in their belief that nothing will ever happen to the housing market. Other players, including the crusading Mark Baum (Steve Carell) and his hedge fund, and two savvy young investors, Charlie Geller and Jamie Shipley, catch wind of Burry’s actions and begin to do the same. Essentially, as one character puts it, they are betting against the U.S. economy.

Ryan Gosling is an engaging narrator as Jared Vennett. From the jump, he informs the audience that he isn’t the hero of the story, but you develop a respect for his ability to not let his self-interest cloud his ability to see the truth. While everyone dismisses Burry as a lunatic creating big paydays for Wall Street, Vennett is eager to see what’s up. Carell is an audience favourite as the designated bullshit sniffer and caller. One of the standout performances is by Jeremy Strong as Vinnie Daniel, a member of Carell’s hedge fund team. He is refreshing to watch as the brash New Yorker who hasn’t allowed his fancy job to turn him into a brown noser or a liar. But the – dare I say Oscar? – biggest props must go to Christian Bale in his role as Michael Burry. His portrayal of Burry’s awkwardness is generous without being glamorous. You root for Burry throughout the movie, but that’s because we already know he’s the hero of the story. If you’d just met him you may have possibly been one of the many people who dismissed Burry, or in the cases of some of the characters in the movie, laughed while taking his money. But we also grow to like him due to his honest and – despite his self-described social awkwardness – self-assuredness.

The Big Short is a spirited and self-aware depiction of the financial crisis. Its portrayal of the colourful characters and outcasts who challenged the status quo by asking questions and refusing to place their trust in authority figures position them as ready made heroes. Their commitment to their work (in Burry’s case), the truth (in Baum’s case) and their future (in the case of Jamie and Charlie) is a source of mild frustration to their families and derision by their colleagues.

It’s also a self-reflective film. Wall Street made much of what they were doing sound incredibly complex leaving the average person eager to leave it to the guys in suits, and the guys in suits to trust what they’ve been told. Past movies that handle the financial industry often fall into the trap of using this same jargon, leaving the audience unable to follow along with the technical details and just satisfy themselves with the obvious drama. Through The Big Short, characters break the fourth wall to explain different concepts. Actors and entertainers make cameo appearances to explain certain concepts, hence why Margot Robbie shows up in a bubble bath to explain mortgage-backed securities and subprime mortgages. And it’s a great way to remind the audience that The Big Short knows what it’s doing. For instance, as the events of the film move from 2005 up to the financial crisis, the story is punctuated by pop culture references in the form of clips from The Hills to music videos, as a way to remind us of all the things we were distracting ourselves with while all of this was happening. By including those cameos, the movie recognizes the irony in using itself, a form of media, to tell people to stop being so damn distracted by media.

But beyond hilarious clips of Lauren Conrad on The Hills, The Big Short does something even more remarkable. It reprimands us as individuals – not simply for our distraction but for our own actions that contributed to the culture of self-interest and dishonesty that led to the crash. Throughout the film, we’re introduced to different characters that work in important institutions, albeit in the middle ranks. A woman at the ratings agency that isn’t responsibly evaluating the securities outright says that her hands are tied because she has a boss to answer to and anyway, the banks will just walk on over to the competition. We all use that justification in our everyday lives, so at what point do we stop? Naturally, if you’re using the go along to get along mentality to get ahead once you get to the top it’s most likely you’ll continue compromising your integrity because you’ve convinced yourself that’s the way things are. While the movie does not place the blame on average people – it’s clear in its criticism of the financial industry – it doesn’t allow the audience to consider itself victims.

We learn that Burry goes on to focus his investment interests on one resource: water. Who hasn’t heard the saying, “Today’s wars were fought over oil. Tomorrow’s wars will be fought over water.” After spending two hours wondering why on earth no one will listen to this Burry guy, we go off to dinner unconcerned about the future he’s currently thinking about. Perhaps the most disturbing takeaway from this movie isn’t how little we knew, but what little action we’re willing to take even once we do know.

Spotlight an intelligent film about institutions and responsibility

Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

Director: Tom McCarthy
Writers: Josh Singer, Tom McCarthy
Starring: Mark Ruffalo, Michael Keaton, Rachel McAdams

The first thing you notice about Spotlight is all the greys and blues. Decidedly dreary, the lighting and colour scheme is a fitting choice since there is absolutely nothing cheerful about the subject matter. Focused on the story of the widespread sexual abuse of children by members of the Catholic Church, the film focuses on the investigative reporters of The Boston Globe’s Spotlight team that broke the story in 2003.

Prior to the start of their investigation, the team is anxious about their future in the midst of a changing media landscape. From the beginning of Spotlight it’s clear that this is a movie that highlights the self-preservation of institutions not only by the Church, but by the newspaper industry as well – the Church when it comes to a monopoly on morality, and print media when it comes to relevance. Marty Baron (Liev Schreiber) is brought in as the new editor of the Globe and quickly questions why the smattering of child sexual abuse within the Catholic Church has not been more thoroughly investigated. It is the sort of long-term investigative work that the Spotlight team specializes in, and it’s clear that tackling this story is one way to prove the team’s relevance to a changing audience beginning to prioritize quick news stories over in-depth reporting. The script allows room to incorporate factors like timing and proper coverage of a story, effectively demonstrating how complicated it is to do something as simple as tell the truth.

Consequently, the audience is able to feel the same frustration as Spotlight’s journalists. Victims are understandably hesitant to talk, there is resistance from high profile figures and profiteering lawyers, and maddening legalities that stand in the way of giving the team access to damning documents. Incidentally, using the challenging nature of accessing sealed documents as a key plot device effectively maintained an appropriate degree of suspense during the movie.

I say appropriately because injecting this film with high drama would have been ludicrous, and mildly inappropriate. It’s a biographical drama; a thriller it is not. Spotlight is an exploration of individual responsibility in the context of institutions. It’s exceptionally easy to condemn horrific acts after the fact, but it is desperately hard to point it out while it remains protected by the institutions whose credibility could be undermined by such exposure. These institutions, which are not just limited to churches, but schools and even the family, provide a convenient framework for dismissing unacceptable behaviour through constant reminders of the chaos that would ensue should they no longer exist to provide structure. That lack of structure is portrayed as infinitely worse than the institution’s flaws. Instead it’s seen as better to suffer in silence for the greater good, even if a great number of people are suffering.

Spotlight is not a movie that condemns religion. In fact it spends a fair amount of time examining the prominent role religion plays in the lives of the Spotlight team, all of whom were admittedly raised Catholic though they’ve largely lapsed. Sasha Pfeiffer (Rachel McAdams) is unable to take her grandmother to church anymore once she learns more about the widespread abuse. As an audience, we witness her concern over shaking her grandmother’s faith, but beyond that we watch the Spotlight team losing a religion they didn’t know they still had. Mike Rezendes (Mark Ruffalo) admits to Pfieffer that while he did stop going to church, he enjoyed it as a kid, and always thought that someday he’d want to go back – a feeling that is broken now. Instead of being a film that condemns religion it examines the difference between faith and organized religion. Mitchell Garabedian (Stanley Tucci), a lawyer advocating for abuse victims, admits that he is Christian; he just doesn’t go to church. For him, the Church is an institution made up of men and is fleeting, but faith itself is eternal.

Garabedian’s words are one of many references to the fact that institutions are simply a collection of ideas and individuals. Throughout the movie we hear stories of families who cooperated by keeping the abuse quiet in an effort to honour the directives of the Church. At one point a cop, whose ideology, if any, should be to serve and protect, tells one of the Spotlight reporters, “Nobody wants to cuff a priest.” Finally, a system’s vulnerability to change is made clear by Garabedian who explains that it takes an outsider to come in and change things – in his case he is an Armenian while Baron is Jewish. Makes sense considering an outsider will experience more difficulty and confusion about the flimsy logic of “how things have always been”. They are less accepting of people’s reasoning that they are just doing their job, keeping their heads down, or protecting themselves. Garabedian says at one point, “If it takes a village to raise a child, it takes a village to abuse one.”

The film – if not entertaining due to its subject matter – is engaging. The script is smart, it doesn’t waste time on long-winded dialogue about guilt and shame, and it effectively conveys what we need to know about Boston’s people and culture. In one great scene, Baron is given a copy of the Catechism and told to consider it his guide to Boston. Spotlight is made up of an all-star cast that is enjoyable to watch no matter how hard the hair, makeup, and costume teams worked to make them look like burned out journalists. Spotlight is a great film, and easily worthy of its Oscar nods.