Just how bad was the global financial meltdown of 2008? Well … several top economists considered it to be the worst monetary crisis since the Great Depression of the 1930s. Now the lead-up to it is captured in gripping detail and sensational form in The Big Short, one of the films of the year.
When a number of outsiders see what the big banks, media and government regulators refuse to – namely, the impending collapse of the global economy – they have an idea: capitalise upon the writing on the wall. Their bold investment leads them into the dark underbelly of the modern banking industry where they must question everyone and everything. Based on the true story and best-selling book by Michael Lewis (The Blind Side, Moneyball) and directed by Adam McKay (Anchorman, Step Brothers), the film stars Christian Bale, Steve Carell, Ryan Gosling and Brad Pitt.
In 2005, eccentric San Jose-based money manager and heavy-metal music enthusiast Michael Burry (Christian Bale) studies thousands of individual loans that have been bundled together and makes a startling discovery. The financial products are loaded with home loans that are certain to default over the next few years. While Wall Street bankers and government regulatory agencies ignore this ticking time bomb, Burry invents a financial instrument to capitalise – much to the dismay of his hedge fund’s owners and investors. When slick young Wall Street banker Jared Vennett (Ryan Gosling) catches wind of Burry’s strategy, he persuades hot-tempered hedge-fund manager Mark Baum (Steve Carell) to also invest. Initially sceptical, Baum and his contentious team of wise-cracking young analysts (Jeremy Strong, Hamish Linklater and Rafe Spall) undertake their own investigation and what they find horrifies them. Researching the housing market in Florida, they interview glib mortgage brokers who routinely obtain loans for grossly under-qualified homebuyers.
Meanwhile, 20-something money managers Jamie Shipley (Finn Wittrock) and Charlie Geller (John Magaro) also stumble upon the housing-market bubble. Hoping to break into the financial big league, they enlist the help of banker-turned-environmental-doomsayer Ben Rickert (Brad Pitt), who uses his connections to help them make their own bet against Wall Street. By the time the market finally crashes, these contrarian investors will make billions yet will be forever changed by their experience. While the financial institutions (whose reckless behaviour caused the problem in the first place) are bailed out, millions of Americans lose their homes, jobs and savings in an economic catastrophe, the effects are which are still being felt today.
When writer and director Adam McKay read The Big Short: Inside the Doomsday Machine he was immediately smitten. He said the book was “like a ‘get rich’ story that’s ultimately about the fall of the banking system, corruption and complacency”. McKay saw that it was funny and heartbreaking at the same time and that is what comes across on film too. It is a brilliant and convoluted story extremely well told and sold through a series of extremely colourful characters.
The acting talent on display here is simply sensational – a veritable who’s who of “A” listers and I assure you they don’t disappoint. Christian Bale and Steve Carrel’s characterisations are so bizarre, so left of centre, as to be considered a psychotherapists’ dream. Ryan Gosling has an athlete’s looks and attitude to boot, while Pitt is almost unrecognisable as the voice of reason and calm who knows a smart play when he sees one.
The plot is so convoluted and the financial instruments talked about so eye glazing that you may wonder how such complexity can effectively be translated onto the big screen. The truth of the matter is that you sit there agog at what is going down, but you quickly get the gist. You do not have to be financially literate to appreciate the doomsday prophecies.
There are a couple of simply magnificent pop culture references in The Big Short that give it an extra edge – one from our very own Margot Robbie sitting in a bath sipping champers. In plain language Robbie (and others) tell us what is going down. What a hoot! The camera work, the creativity, the treatment of the material to turn what could have been as boring at the proverbial into compelling cinema is pure cinematic genius. So much so, in fact, that I want to see it again.
Rated M, The Big Short scores an 8½ to 9 out of 10.
Director: Adam McKay
Cast: Christian Bale, Steve Carell, Ryan Gosling, Brad Pitt
Release Date: 14 January 2016
David Edwards is the editor of The Blurb and a contributor on film and television