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.

An intro to rock climbing at Boulderz

“This guy’s frustrating me. Let’s do something fun.”

“Wanna go rock climbing?” suggested my best friend and roll dog, Brianna.

And so off we went to Boulderz Climbing Centre on Dupont, a short bus ride away from St. George station. When we got there we were greeted by enthusiastic climbers scaling the walls, the smell of feet, and a upbeat girl at the front desk named Ann who promptly directed us to fill out waivers essentially saying that should we maim ourselves at Boulderz it was on us.

“Have you guys ever been rock climbing before?” she asked.

We both shook our heads. “There’s gonna be some sort of tutorial, right?” I asked nervously, staring at one of the climbers who had just dropped to the padded ground.

“Yup! I’ll give you a beginner’s lesson once I get you guys some shoes.”

I was already starting to feel clingy. Ann would be the person that ensured we didn’t die. “Can I leave my phone with you?”

Once we squeezed into our rented shoes, Ann took us over to the beginner’s section where she pointed out the coloured markers that indicated the difficulty level of each rock. Bright yellow, which marked the easiest routes, would be our guide. Brianna and I warily eyed the tiny rocks labelled to show that they were for experienced climbers. The tutorial involved a quick demonstration of how to shift our hands and feet, and a warning to look out for experienced climbers coming down over the wall.

After she sent us off to hopefully not break our necks, I realized I’d left my phone on and asked Ann if I could quickly turn it off, so it didn’t disturb the front desk. She looked at me, deadpan, and said:

“Because you get a lot of calls, huh? So popular.”

We tentatively climbed three inches at different spots of the gym threading through obvious regulars climbing up and down, side to side – every which way that we wouldn’t be able to copy anytime soon. The “rocks” were extremely challenging to hold onto, even with the bag of chalk, and we were making more calluses than progress.

On the second level we found a kids area that did wonders for our ego. Perhaps a little too much for our egos because we ambitiously went back downstairs to tackle the difficult wall that had already daunted us, realized we were still in no position to overcome those, and slinked back to the kids section. As Ann warned, a climber who had managed to scale the wall from the level below leaped over Tarzan-style to where I was standing, effectively scaring the life out of me. Later, my eleven year old brother would tell me that this is how you flirt in rock climbing.

It was fun, but we had basically paid to be intimidated by a bunch of colourful walls. We would need to do what everyone in the twenty-first century does to justify a paid experience: before leaving we needed to post something on social media. I went to get my phone from the front desk, but since Ann was busy with a customer I had to ask someone else.

“Hi,” I said to the guy behind the counter. “I’d just like to grab my phone. I left it behind the counter. If you want to check, I spoke with Ann…”

He handed me my phone. “I was here when you gave it to her. Miss. Popular, right?”

I was never gonna live it down.

Featured image from Boulderz