29 January 2016

Adam McKay’s ‘The Big Short’

After seeing JC Chandor’s A Most Violent Year a year ago, I sought out the same director’s impressive first feature from 2011, Margin Call. This was the story of how a Wall Street bank nearly crashed in a few days in 2008 told from the viewpoint of those on the inside. Adam McKay’s The Big Short is an account of some of the people, all distinctly unorthodox outsiders, who predicted the same crash well in advance and eventually profited from doing so. It draws on Michael Lewis’s nonfiction book, The Big Short: Inside the Doomsday Machine.

Because of the film’s subject, the director needed to provide explanations of sub-prime mortgages, collateralized debt obligations (CDOs) and the like and what shorting them on a large scale (the big short, indeed) involved. I had some idea of what had happened in 2008 (though, for example, the existence of CDOs-squared was new to me), so I can’t judge how enlightening metaphorical descriptions from actresses in bubble baths and celebrity cooks are to anyone coming to it all for the first time. (A much drier account can be found here - you might want to stop when you get to “The generational problem” - and there are some recommendations for further reading here). Alex von Tunzelmann, in an article in the Guardian, has looked at the historical accuracy of The Big Short and concluded that it provides “a solid historical explanation of the subprime crisis” though she also points out that most of the characters:
… have been semi-fictionalised and renamed. Michael Burry (Christian Bale) really was a stock market investor at Scion Capital; he wore no shoes and listened to thrash metal in the office. Mark Baum (Steve Carell) is based on hedge fund manager Steve Eisman; the movie keeps his Jewish background and straight talking. Jared Vennett (Ryan Gosling) is based on Deutsche Bank bond salesman Greg Lippmann: “He wore his hair slicked back, in the manner of Gordon Gekko,” wrote Lewis, “and the sideburns long, in the fashion of an 1820s Romantic composer or a 1970s porn star.” The film’s Vennett sports disappointingly inadequate sideburns but has a penchant for the same braggadocio as Lippmann. Ben Rickert (Brad Pitt) is based on Ben Hockett, and has a similar apocalyptic outlook.
Carell, Gosling and Pitt all play their parts to the full. Burry’s wacky character offers Bale the scope to impress at the time but Carrell’s Baum and Pitt’s Rickert, both difficult men with some moral scruples, will probably linger in one’s memory longer:
We live in an era of fraud in America. Not just in banking, but in government, education, religion, food. Even baseball... (Baum) 
If we're right, people lose homes. People lose jobs. People lose retirement savings, people lose pensions. You know what I hate about fucking banking? It reduces people to numbers. Here's a number - every 1% unemployment goes up, 40,000 people die, did you know that? (Rickert)
None of these characters are particularly admirable, and most of them could be regarded as being as greedy as the rest of the financial services industry, but they are possessed of a steely determination to be proved right and the majority wrong. I thought one of the best scenes was the meeting in the ratings agency. It’s a long film and frantic at times, presumably thought necessary to convey the atmosphere of Wall Street and New York – I’m sure a Basquiat appeared for a few seconds for no particular reason.

The pub in Exmouth (SW England) where Rickert sets up his laptop was unconvincing: wi-fi in 2007, the other customers spoke Estuary, not Devonshire, English and while they may well dislike bankers now, they probably would have been as blissfully ignorant as the rest of us then!

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