The events leading up to the 2008 recession are some of the most insane to be experienced in the world of economics. All of the fraud, gambling and lies that the bankers spread to make money for themselves at the expense of the poor, whilst blaming the poor for the financial crash, blocking off reform at the same time, would be hilarious if they didn’t destroy so many lives even to this day. Considering all that, it made sense to me for a comedic director to make a film about the crash, enter Adam McKay, the director of Anchorman. Considering that I’m not normally a fan of McKay’s style, I didn’t know whether I would enjoy this at first, but after watching I can see that he was the perfect person to direct, his style is perfect for the excess and greed shown by the bankers.The film focuses on three groups of people, all of whom have some involvement in the 2008 financial crash. The focus starts on Michael Burry, an eccentric hedge fund manager who looks into the subprime mortgage loans and notices that the housing market will soon collapse. He sets up a credit default swap market to bet against the housing market, with the potential for massive profits when the market collapses. This gets the attention of trader Jared Vennett who soon puts his own stake in the swap market. After a misplace phone call from Vennett, hedge fund manager Mark Baum hears about the scheme and decides to take part. At the same time, two young investors, Charlie Geller and Jamie Shipley, stumble across documents showing that the market will crash and enlist the help of retired banker Ben Rickert to get them into the swap market to help them make money. One of the main strengths of the film is how it doesn’t dial down the language used by the bankers. It shows how confusing the bankers made everything to build themselves up and make them seem trusted and the film does a good job explaining all the different terms of the economy in a way that anyone can understand, using cameos from famous faces to explain the key terms in the economy as they come up. As a result, we feel as up to speed with the events as the characters so we begin to see just how horrific what they’re doing is at the same time that they are. The film also does a good job at showing the extreme arrogance for the bankers and the mortgage brokers, letting us see how cocky they are and how little they care that what they’re doing will eventually crash the economy. However, the film never lets us forget the consequences of what the characters are doing. As the film goes on, the characters slowly start to realise the scale of what’s happening, how it will crash the economy and the horror they feel as they realise how they’re going to profit on the misery of people is effectively brought across. At some points, the characters even break the forth wall to let us know that the events depicted did happen in real life, adding to the believability of what we see. This is best seen at the end when we see how the crash has impacted some of the minor characters we saw throughout the film.
Another aspect of the film that works so well is the indictment of the whole culture surrounding the economy, even attacking the audience. The film points out on numerous occasions that everything that showed how the banks were committing fraud was right out in the open and all we needed to do was look for it. Some of the characters even brag about the fraud. The film shows how the bankers arranged everything for them to get none of the blame for the crash, blaming immigrants and the poor instead (as the doctrine of neoliberalism goes for these people) and the bankers have started doing the exact same stuff that caused the 2008 crash all over again. The ending of the film is a rallying cry calling for the audience not to let the bankers get away with this stuff again and, considering the popularity of Bernie Sanders in the US and Jeremy Corbyn in the UK, that call is being heard.
If there are complaints I have with the plot it’s that some of the characters feel superfluous. I feel the film would have been stronger if Burry was just used as a wraparound at the beginning and end of the film, with the rest of the film focusing on Baum, Vennett, Geller and Shipley but the film cuts back to Burry a bit too often for my liking. There are other characters, such as Evie, a friend of Geller’s, that add nothing to the film and could have been cut out. However though, I feel more scenes for characters like Evie were planned to be included in the film but cut out to give it a 2 hour run time. I hope we see something like a director’s cut in the future because it feels like a fair few scenes in the film were cut out.
The performances meanwhile are strong. Whilst he’s in the film a bit too often, Christian Bale does a good job as Burry, showing the clear intelligence of the character and the daring he has in betting against the housing market, whilst also showing his outsider status in the traditional economic world through his body language and his clothing. Ryan Gosling meanwhile is a lot of fun to watch as Vennett. He’s such an odious, slippery, cocky character (who’s also the narrator of the film) and Gosling plays up these aspects of the character brilliantly, creating some of the best laughs in the film. Steve Carell meanwhile continues his incredible recent track record, showing the growing horror Baum feels over the entire banking system and his guilt over what he does, along with brilliantly showing the bemusement regarding how the bankers were able to get away with everything they did for so long. He also does great work showing the hidden depths of the character, the anger he presents being a really effective cover for his deep seated personal issues. John Magaro and Finn Wittrock are also a lot of fun as Geller and Shipley. The inexperience they have with the large scale finance sector is presented brilliantly along with their initial jubilation over the money they make but when the rug is pulled out from under them, the gut punch the actors show is brilliantly handled. Brad Pitt meanwhile does great work showing the paranoid aspects of Rickert and his anger over the joy Geller and Shipley feel is well presented. Good supporting work is also seen by Rafe Spall, Hamish Linklater and Jeremy Strong as the team at Baum’s hedge fund. The whole believability of the film is also enhanced by how white and male the whole cast is, considering how it was white men who crashed the economy (Devin Faraci wrote a great piece about it here). However, this does mean that great performers like Melissa Leo, Marissa Tomei and Karen Gillan are wasted.
Overall, The Big Short is a brilliant look at the factors leading to the 2008 recession, equal parts hilarious and horrifying. The performances are great across the board, the direction and script are top notch, the use of music is inspired (particularly the use of Phantom of the Opera when the characters go to an economics convention in Las Vegas) and the film does a good job showing how we have to bear some of the blame for allowing the crash to happen. This is a film that needed to be made at exactly this point in time and Adam McKay really delivered.
My Rating: 4.5/5