Companion Piece: The Big Short and Inside Job

Adam McKay’s latest film The Big Short is now released in UK cinemas backed by strong critical acclaim. In a time where even the least sceptical people are starting to question the legitimacy of the people holding all their invisible money in the safety of banks I suspected the film to be a bank-hating bandwagon of a film – and it was, but that’s not to say it wasn’t good.

What’s great about The Big Short is the way it turns the most (deliberately) complicated, jargon-infested industry in the world into something reasonably digestible and exciting which it achieves in a number of ways.

Number one is the characters; here’s an excerpt from Michael Burry’s Wikipedia page:

“While off duty at night, he worked on his lifelong hobby, financial investing. On one occasion, Burry had been working so hard studying both for medical school and his personal financial interests that he fell asleep standing up during a complicated surgery, and crashed into the oxygen tent that had been built around the patient and was thrown out of the operating room by the lead surgeon.”

Christian Bale’s blazé depiction of this financial savant embodies the kind of man who realistically would tack on to the signs of a financial collapse before anyone else and not be believed. He announces himself as a doctor, we trust him, he seems distant from the reality of the crisis and is only interested in the data before him and what it means. It’s hard to believe he was one of the only people to actually look into the contents of a CDO but if it were to be anyone it would be this guy whose blind interest in finance was not particularly about personal gain. Ryan Gosling’s wise-guy character is exactly the guy you’d expect to profit off the entire fiasco and Steve Carell’s conflicted and almost over-the-hill investor character brings the human element. There are more cliché and caricature characters like dumb mortgage brokers rolling in money or the ratings agency woman who wears glasses for the blind which was maybe a bit excessive, but they’re more a joke anyway.

Number two is the simplification of the jargon which is done by often breaking the fourth wall and having terms like CDO, sub-prime loans, derivatives and securities chain debunked comically through stupid situations like Margot Robbie in a bath tub or Selena Gomez at the blackjack table analogizing for us. To some this could be considered lazy filmmaking but given the importance of a basic understanding of the situation to the film’s storyline it was probably the correct method of exposition.

I walked away from the theatre then with a basic knowledge of what happened during the late 2000s and a revamped hatred for ignorant, incompetent banking executives – but also with a desire to find out more. One of Mark Kermode’s latest “Kermode Uncut” videos is good because it suggests several other films based on the crash including: Enron: The smartest guys in the room, Margin Call and 99 Homes. I’ve seen none of these yet, though they are all dramatized cinema like The Big Short so I decided instead to watch a documentary on the subject, narrated by Matt Damon, called Inside Job.

Described by Roger Ebert as an “an angry, well-argued documentary”, Charles Ferguson’s Inside Job contains all the infographics and analogies (separating the oil in a tanker so it doesn’t slosh around and capsize the ship etc.) of The Big Short, but with the body of the film being interviews full of Theroux-strength direct questions to people directly involved in the crisis’ development.

The film runs like an essay that’s split into appropriate chapters detailing each stage using phone recordings, journal and newspaper articles as references. Some of the best and most excruciating scenes are simply footage, some available on YouTube, of exchanges between the Courts and banking executives where you can see them squirming and deflecting efforts to expose the truth of the industry. Many issues are tackled like the potential conflict of interests when a university professor consults for banks and securities firms, morality of the banks betting against products they sell to reduce their own risk and the change in banking structure for example how local banks people trusted had been swallowed up by too big to fail megabanks from the 70s onwards. Using Iceland as an isolated, smaller scale example of the mechanics of collapse, moving into the American collapse, then into the rippling effects around the world is such a smart format for the documentary too. Furthermore, the culture of banking is discussed; people were working their hardest to be recognised and move up the food chain entirely for personal gain, bankers were enjoying $1000 per hour lap dances in boudoirs conveniently positioned near corporate buildings and these expenses given fake misleading names so invoices for these frivolities were inconspicuous. It made me realise again that the real cause of the collapse, and heck almost any world issue, is greed.

Despite all of this commotion there is still corruption in the financial industry because money is power and power is all that matters.

Knowledge is also power; watch and learn.

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