Two of my favorite movies in recent years deal with a subject that I don’t understand: high finance. (I don’t understand low finance either; I’m the aging lady holding up the line at the supermarket checkout.) Both of these films delve into the reprehensible finaglings by the big banks and mortgage brokers that caused the financial meltdown of 2008. I’ve watched Margin Call (2011) four times, which is one more time than I have ever watched any movie in my entire life. I’ve watched The Big Short (2015) twice, the second time very closely, stopping it and rewinding it every few minutes in order to analyze it and understand it as best I can (which is not very much). I’m trying to figure out why these films about a subject I don’t understand impress me so deeply.
For one thing, it’s obvious even to an amateur like me that there is great skill involved–skill in writing, acting, pacing, momentum, camera work, directorial authority. Margin Call gets the palm for writing, because the director, J. C. Chandor, also wrote the original script. The Big Short was also written, or rather co-written, by the director, Adam McKay, based on the respected non-fiction book (2010) of the same name by Michael Lewis.
The most obvious immediate difference between the two is that whereas Margin Call takes place in 24 hours at just one bank (bearing a very close resemblance to Lehman Bros.), The Big Short covers many months, many banks, many hedge funds. But the aspect of The Big Short that interests me from an ethical standpoint is that it makes glancing references along the way at the pain and suffering that came, and continue to come, as a result of the gleeful financial maneuverings of the characters in the movie who are driven solely by their passion for making money. The fact that these references are glancing somehow makes the point more powerfully than a lot of lingering would do–as I’ll try to indicate.
The Big Short opens with a snappy run-through of how, starting in the 70s, “boring old banking went from the country club to the strip club” until 2008, when the whole structure came crashing down. Soon after, we see the principal character, Mark Baum (a real person played by Steve Carell), in a profane, wildly inappropriate interruption of a meeting, setting off the farcical tone of much of the movie. We laugh, and we barely notice that his indignation concerns the contempt for “working people” shown by his counterparts in high finance. This theme will not return for an hour or two, as we watch the mostly youthful hedge fund managers and other operators go about their inspired but deeply cynical betting (“shorting”) against the housing market. Led by Christian Bale in an amazing performance as Michael Burry, a one-eyed financial genius with some form of Asperger’s, the youthful central characters have learned what the mandarins in a kind of willed blindness have refused to see. Some of these scenes are hilarious, with very good actors playing off each other with amusing facial expressions. The reactions of the big banks (Deutsche, Bear Sterns, Goldman Sachs, etc.) when Burry shells out mega-millions from his hedge fund to “short” the market are priceless, as they believe they have put one over on this very strange fund manager from California. It gets laugh-out-loud funny when the two youngest among the money men try to pitch their fund to Morgan Chase, the only bank that has agreed to see them. They receive a mortifying brush-off in the lobby at five minutes to five PM from a sharply-dressed subordinate who looks younger than they do, greets them with, “Have a seat a second,” perches on the arm of a chair, shoots his cuffs with effortless superiority, heaps disdain on their proposal, and cheerfully caps off their humiliation with “Have a good one, guys,” as he zooms out the door. The two rejects (Charlie and Jamie) have their revenge, however, because they coincidentally come upon the trail of the Burry express and from that point on, the movie becomes unstoppable — as does the arrival of the market collapse. It’s all tremendous fun, and horrifying as well, which is a difficult trick to pull off. I think Adam McKay manages it.
Here’s my main point. As the plot rockets along, there are two scenes that are very brief and not emphasized, so understated that I really didn’t recall them the first time I watched, but the second time they registered powerfully. Two of the callow young hedge fund operators are sent to Miami by their boss, Mark Baum, to a new housing development 45 minutes out in the exurbs (as they deplane, one of them says, “I just hope there are some good Cuban restaurants”). They are supposed to be gathering data about the housing bubble. They see abandoned condos, unfinished rental housing, uncollected newspapers piled up on stoops. “It’s like Chernobyl,” says one. Finally an actual inhabitant answers a doorbell–a very large, heavily tattooed, black-bearded man in a tank top who looks quite scary but whose manner is surprisingly mild. The young traders tell him they are looking for his landlord, who is 90 days delinquent in paying the mortgage. The big man blinks; it appears that the mortgage is registered in the name of the landlord’s dog. It’s extremely funny, and yet not; the big man is stricken as it dawns on him that his landlord has not been paying the mortgage. He says, with a soft earnestness, “It’s not my fault, I’ve been paying my rent, dude.” A little boy comes up and attaches himself to his father. The big man looks as if he’s going to cry. “Am I going to have to leave, man? My son was just getting settled in school.” “You should talk to your landlord,” says the young trader, “You have a great day.” End of scene.
The big bearded man and the son appear again very briefly, at the very end. More about that in a minute.
The pace continues to pick up, and various short scenes give us glimpses of the venality of the banks. We are introduced to two truly loathsome young mortgage brokers (almost everybody is young in this racket) who do NINJA loans (“no money, no job”) and have made tons of money. They specialize in immigrants who don’t understand what they’re signing. They cackle with profane glee when they’re asked by Mark and his team whether they’ve ever turned down an applicant. They laugh at such an absurd question. Mark asks his team, “Why are they confessing?” “They aren’t confessing,” says one, sobered at last by his trip to Miami; “they’re bragging.” Even viewers like me who don’t understand any of the financial details are beginning to get the picture.
Scene follows upon madcap scene to show the depth of the greed, lies, deceptions, and profoundly cynical manipulation that went on (and presumably still go on) in the world of high finance. The scenes at a conference in Las Vegas are particularly incisive, especially the wonderfully acted dinner conversation between the increasingly horrified Mark Baum and a preternaturally cool, slick Asian character who trades in worthless bonds (played with spectacular style by Byron Mann). Again, it is all shockingly funny. Charlie and Jamie–the “garage band hedge fund” duo–are so appalled when the banks start selling their worthless bonds that they go to a friend from college at The Wall Street Journal. He refuses to touch the story, despite their passionate attempts to show that, as Jamie almost shouts, “This level of criminality is unprecedented, even on f**g Wall Street!”
Mark Baum, whose blunt, inconsiderate ways were offputting at first, becomes the moral center of the movie, if one can speak of morality in the midst of such wholesale villainy. Another highlight is a meeting where Mark speaks to the fat cats, the Wall Street types pristine in ties, while the hedge fund guys, casual and tieless, follow the plummeting market on their phones even as they sit there. Mark assails the bankers: “Average people are going to have to pay for this, because they always, always do.” As the numbers sink and sink, most of the people in the audience jump up and vacate the room in order to get on their phones. The collapse predicted by Burry has arrived. In niftily edited clips we see the announcement of the demise of Lehmann Brothers crawling across one of the neon news tickers. The stunned Lehmann employees are herded out of their building forever, almost like driven cattle, toting big cardboard boxes with their hastily packed belongings. Vinnie, one of Mark’s team, sits on the steps of St Bartholomew’s Church (I’m not sure why that location) and telephones Mark. Mark is sitting in deep despair on the balcony of his posh apartment overlooking Central Park. He is not in despair for his own investors, since he will cash out in the mega-millions. He is despairing for the suffering that he knows will come to the “average people,” the “immigrants and poor people.”
We also see Burry, preparing to shut down his fund. His skill and prescience has earned 2.69 billion. He is typing out a letter to his investors. We hear him reading it in a voice-over: “Making money is not like I thought it would be. This business kills the part of life that is essential — the part that has nothing to do with business.” As he continues to write/speak in this vein, we see a gas station and a run-down car. The car has cheap suitcases and a gasoline container tied on top with ropes. A man emerges from the car, and a little boy is running around. A frazzled-looking red-haired woman chases him and scoots him into the back of the car where a little girl is sitting. The man comes around to the car door and gathers the woman into a long, desperate embrace. We see the tattoos on his arms and suddenly realize that it is the big man with the delinquent, lying landlord. He and his family have been evicted. The scene is so brief, less than a minute, that it is easy to miss, but the point is made far more effectively than if it had been allowed to go on and on. In this one man, this one family, we see in microcosm the outcome of the greed and deception at the top that caused millions to lose their homes and their livelihoods. We then see the two creepy young mortgage brokers, looking bewildered and emptied-out, in a crowd of people at a jobs fair — we are glad to see them get their comeuppance, but at the same time we also recall a scene in which Ryan Gosling, playing Jared, one of the investors who saw the collapse coming and acted accordingly, lovingly strokes a check made out to him for $47,000,000.00 (that’s not a typo). Jared does not see the big man with his cheap suitcases and his children in the rundown car, but Mark does. That’s why Mark, whose fund will equal a billion when he sells everything, is the moral conscience of the film.
As the movie ends, we are told that only one banker ever went to jail. And the words appear,
When the dust settled, five trillion dollars had disappeared. 8 million people lost their jobs, 6 million lost their homes. And that was just in the USA.
The credits roll alongside a rapid series of alternating images: a signature being affixed to a subprime mortgage, foreclosure signs, eviction notices, food stamps, furniture and possessions piled on a curb, hands sorting through coupons…and on the other hand a private helicopter, a yacht, a closet of bespoke suits, flutes of champagne.
This has been a very long review, and I left out a lot. I didn’t even mention Brad Pitt, one of the producers, who is extremely effective in his role as a big-time trader gone to the vegan-and-subsistence-farming life in Arizona. What I’ve tried to do in this idiosyncratic recital of certain features of the movie is to show how The Big Short manages to be non-stop funny and propulsively engaging while still having a distinctly moral point of view. Most of the big-screen, wide-release movies being made today have no clear point of view at all; they are just entertainment. Both The Big Short and Margin Call are both grown-up films. They ask something of their audience: reflection, and perhaps some righteous indignation.
My previous post about Margin Call