The Whole System is a Lie:
The Big Short
“Average people are the ones who will have to pay for this; because they always do.”
If, like me, you’re one of those average people whose eyes glaze over and Zzzzz’z begin to march through your head at the mention of such esoteric phrases as ‘hedge funds’ and ‘sub-prime loans’ then you may not think that director Adam McKay’s take on the credit/housing bubble crash of 2007 — The Big Short — is for you.
Please, trust me: that would be a mistake; because this is a terrific film.
And it may be partly down to McKay being known mainly as a comedy writer (and occasional director) and therefore keeping it moving along nicely; or it may be the wonderfully energetic and tight script from McKay and Charles Randolph, based on the book by Michael Lewis. A flawless, mouth-watering cast assembly does no harm either. But whatever the reason, it works — and works beautifully.
What becomes clear – although in fairness I guess that we have figured it out ourselves at this stage – is that these top level bankers understood about as much as that average person did. Which wasn’t much. It may have been less.
I did learn some new words, though. Ever heard the term NINJA in regards to getting a loan? “No Income, No Job” but we’re still not going to send you down the street to our competitors. Leave that section blank. We’ll give you the loan anyway, it doesn’t matter that you don’t have a hope in Hell of paying it back. The market is solid, the economy is solid and anyone who doesn’t think so should just go out and commit suicide. Sound familiar?
If the Irish ex- Finance Minister, liar and crook Bertie Ahern sees this film he’ll be telling us again that if only someone had warned him…
“Our whole system is built on ripping people off. How long can that last?” muses the psychically damaged hedge fund manager Mark Baum (superbly played by Steve Carell). In many ways, the increasingly incredulous Baum is the conscience of the film, even as trader Jared Vennett (Ryan Gosling) is the sardonic voice that narrates to and addresses the audience, never hiding the fact that he’s out only for himself:
“And then one day it all came crashing down…and none of the experts or leaders or talking heads had a clue it was coming. I’m guessing none of you still don’t know what happened. [Refrain in the background to the tune of ‘Our financial institutions are strong’.]
“There were some who saw it coming. While the whole world was having a big old party, a few outsiders and weirdo’s saw what no one else could. Not me. I’m just pretty fucking cool. But these outsiders saw the giant lie at the heart of the economy; and they saw it by doing something that the rest of the suckers never thought to do: they looked.”
Ben Rickert (Brad Pitt, also co-producing) is a puzzle to me. He’s out of the banking scene and growing his own food as he happily waits for the systems to fail and for civilization to come crashing down. And yet he acts as an enabler to two opportunistic young men who simply want to get rich at all cost. Nor is he in any doubt of how most people feel these days about bankers. As a barman tells him when he overhears his conversation, which is peppered by telephone number-sized figures:
“What are you – a drug dealer? Or a banker? Because if you’re a banker you can fuck right off!”
And starting off the film’s flow is Michael Burry, the seemingly autistic, drum-playing and socially awkward genius who is the first to capitalize on the coming Banking Armaggedon. Both insider and outsider, he is a fascinating and maddening character, beautifully portrayed by Christian Bale.
See what I mean about this cast?
I don’t need to worry about spoilers. Like Titanic we know it’s not going to have a happy ending. Well, not for the average people mentioned in my opening quote, that’s for sure. They got hammered — just like they always do.
And people died in despair because of the greed and venality of a few – just like they always do.
“This level of criminality is unprecedented even in Wall Street”, says one character as the full extent of the illegality sinks in on him. But just like Ireland, next to no one will ever see the inside of a jail cell. Jail is for those who don’t pay their TV license, not for the Sean Fitzpatrick’s or the Bertie Ahern’s of this sad old world.
In subject matter this is like J.C. Sandor’s excellent 2011 film Margin Call; stylistically it takes its cues from Martin Scorsese’s The Wolf of Wall Street; but it’s a far better film than either of them. Because McKay isn’t half in love with his worthless characters, like Scorsese was. In The Big Short we never lose sight of the fact that it is the average person who is going to suffer.
When the dust had settled, the film tells us, 8 million people had lost their jobs and 6 million people had lost their homes; and that was only in the USA.
And yet, as our very own venerable bankers– who have proved themselves to be incompetent at best and criminal at worst — begin to talk down to us once more, we are gearing up to let it all happen again.
And soon, at that.
“Truth is like poetry. And most people fucking hate poetry”.
— overheard in a Washington bar.