When I watched The Wolf of Wall Street at a Marble Arch cinema, minutes away from the most expensive houses in London, I remember an awkward moment. As DiCaprio, sat on a Yacht, showcases his wealth and power over the investigator pursuing him, a man – on his own – cheered and clapped after one witty riposte made by Leo. Was he a banker? Is he boasting about his own affluence? Does he see Jordan Belfort as someone to cheer, as we would champion an underdog? In any case, I doubt he’d cheer on the protagonists in The Big Short.
While the country dealt with the consequences of short-sighted banks and ratings agencies, a handful of men took advantage of the downturn. Crucially, they weren’t bankers who sold sub-prime mortgages. They were savvy numbers-guys who knew that they could benefit from the banks inevitable, huge loss. It was a flaw they foresaw and, surely, nobody would let it happen again. In 2008, when they cashed in, it could spell the “end of Capitalism”.
After years of bundling together lump sums of mortgages to sell as stocks, it seems as if the quality of these mortgages is dropping. Originally considered exceptionally safe stocks (who won’t pay for their house?) mortgages are now offered to people who can’t necessarily pay, so the lump sums are going to backfire. But when money is lost, there is an opposite position where money can be made. Michael Burry (Christian Bale) decides to buy stocks against the “exceptionally safe” mortgages, and everyone he goes to gladly take his money. The idea that these mortgages will fail is simply preposterous. Burry is not the only one aware though and Jared Venett (Ryan Gosling), Mark Baum (Steve Carrell), Jamie Shipley (Finn Wittrock) and Charlie Gellar (John Magaro) – with the help of Ben Rickert (Brad Pitt) – all work out what’s going to happen, and prepare themselves for the levee to break.
Director Adam McKay has changed his direction. This is the man behind Anchorman and Step Brothers. He’s directing a handheld camera, akin to a documentarian spying these white-toothed creatures in their natural, seedy-club habitat. Then a couple of characters break the fourth wall, explaining directly who built the foundations for the 2008 crash. Documentaries like Inside Job, Capitalism: A Love Story and Client 9 deconstruct the details of credit-default swaps and CDO’s with talking heads and graphs. McKay has quotes, narration and TV Chef Anthony Bourdain switching sub-prime mortgages for fish. Stills of corporate products and scratchy footage of Britney Spears remind us of those halcyon days when the news wasn’t dominated by MP’s talking about “difficult decisions” and “tightening our belts”; an era when no-one cared for banks. The Big Short isn’t focused on victims losing their house or money-obsessed economists causing the crisis. McKay uses these quick-witted bystanders, who knew they wouldn’t be listened to and knew not to trust the banks, to tell the tale. When they realise the extent of the greed buried in the banking sector, they are as appalled as we are. But they’re also in a position to cash-in.
Everyone is already earning a tidy sum and they could ignore these oppositional stocks entirely. These are not liberal crusaders attacking the core of capitalism. They are people who, with trepidation, fear and (at some points) regret, took a gamble on a mathematical consequence. We’re not supposed to pity them or put them on a pedestal, we’re simply meant to appreciate their perspective – Carrell and Pitt portray decent, hard-working men, in many respects. The villains are money-hungry investors and bankers, keen to cash in another bonus – and we’re rooting for our guys to rip them off. The unfair and disturbing consequence was a government bailout and business-as-usual resuming.
The Big Short is sure of one thing: the system remains flawed. But it is nevertheless what we have. McKay wants people to access this film, and this recent history, with a renewed vigour. Banking is purposefully obtuse, with convoluted terminology and a gross abuse of power; men playing slots with the mortgages of the poor. The Big Short doesn’t preach socialism (these men are all making money) not does it glorify the industry (as The Wolf of Wall Street could be perceived) and instead uses accessible, snarky characters to expertly feed us details a worldwide recession we must never forget.