If the winners aren’t rejoicing, and many seem poised to lose again, then perhaps it’s time to change the rules of the game.
THE BIG SHORT is about the American Economic Crisis of 2008, and specifically the select financial workers who were actually able to turn a profit off the entire market crashing down around them. As the introduction explains, they weren’t any smarter than anyone else in the financial sector, nor any luckier. They only had the guts to buy-in on what many would see as a longshot, and the common sense to look at all the information presented before them.
In one corner is Dr. Michael Burry (Christian Bale). Burry is a hedge fund manager and a complete eccentric. When he takes a very deep look at America’s housing market, he realizes that the whole thing is propped-up on some extremely shady deals that seem destined to fail in about two years. He invests his clients money (much to the chagrin of his clients and his superiors) by creating a credit default swap market with many of the major banks.
In short; if the banks start losing their marks – Burry and his clients collect.
In another corner is Jared Vennett (Ryan Gosling), who hears about Burry’s idea and begins to look into it himself. Seeing the math with his own eyes, he decides to throw-in as well. Only problem is he’s a little short on funds to make the return worthwhile.
In yet another corner is Mark Baum (Steve Carell) and his team at a small money management firm that is a part of a larger financial operation. Through the sort of fluke one usually believes only happens in the movies, Baum approaches Vennett after getting several wrong-number dials looking for him. It’s then that Vennett underlines just what has been unearthed, and how Baum and his group can get in on it. Baum is the sort of person who likes to tell people speaking in movies that they are ruining it for the rest of us…but then usually ruin things even more.
Still, he’s no dummy…and given the chance to work with Vennett and make a lot of money, he takes it.
Finally in the last corner is Jamie Shipley (John Magaro) and Charlie Geller (Finn Wittrock). They are the financial equivalent of a garage band trying to get a set at Coachella. When they discover a report detailing Vennett’s findings, they want in. However, they need help. For that, they reach out to an old acquaintance named Ben Rickert (Brad Pitt). Rickert was great at the game, but got out when the changing rules stopped the game from being any fun. It’s up to him to get them a seat at the grown-ups table, something that brings him no joy.
Wanna guess what happens to the market and how our heroes make out?
A story like this can seem, at first blush, like economic gobbledygook. AAA’s, CDO’s, swaps, hedge funds, blah, blah, freakin’ blah. There are lots of places a person could go to hear that story, and happily, THE BIG SHORT isn’t one of them.
Instead, what this film is interested in telling us is the human element of how a nation arrives at a crisis point like this, and what such crises then bring out in us as a result.
We’re asked to consider our duplicity. It used to be that the business world permitted bending of the rules so long as nobody got hurt. Nowadays, things are so cutthroat that we as a society seem to allow absolute breaking of the rules, and don’t even care when it is done by businesses that have a deep impact on our day-to-day life. It’s what makes the characters of THE BIG SHORT to grow so deeply aghast, and what likewise makes us in the audience shake our head. We are all able to do the math, we are all able to sense the falsity. As we watch characters like Burry and Baum grow exacerbated over rules they can clearly see being broken, we too grow exacerbated – but in the knowledge that we as a society allowed this to happen.
However, we are then asked to consider our pride and our entitlement. Being able to say that other people are wrong is a rush and an addiction. It can cripple a person’s ability to function as sure as any drug. It leads people like Burry especially to call out those who are breaking the social contract, as if being the one to underline the misdeed will somehow make them feel better. The problem is, usually it doesn’t. It brings upon no joy to say “I knew it was all going to end”…and even less joy to profit off it. And yet, so many of us still get that rush from being right.
Perhaps the true message of THE BIG SHORT lays in the reclusiveness of Ben Rickert. Here is a smart person who has made his bones, and remains whip-smart, but has chosen to withdraw from the fray and live a life that is fulfilling and simpler.
We like to believe that we are better people if we saw the storm coming, and knew who had caused the clouds to gather. But perhaps what’s best is to refrain from sounding the alarm, and quietly build a better bunker.
As the screen cuts to black, we hear the iconic words of Led Zeppelin crash through the sound system:
If it keeps on rainin’ – the levee’s goin’ to break
One could suggest that it’s a little on-the-nose, but I’d argue that’s part of the point. America should be rallying; it should be engaging its vast manpower numbers and finding a new way forward to stabilize its economy in the face of one of the biggest financial collapses in its history. But that’s not what’s happening. The events of this film – the loudest economic shot across the bow in the long story of The United States – has gone unheard. What happened was complicated at first, and hidden just well enough. Now everybody knows what happened, and if they didn’t, stories like this explain it to them like they’re six…so now they know.
America didn’t weather the storm; they only sought shelter as it reached America’s shores. It may have eased somewhat, but it hasn’t let-up, and if lessons underlined in THE BIG SHORT aren’t learned soon, that storm is going to wash out everything America has built.