I can’t properly define what makes a movie great to me, can you? I know some people think a movie is “great” because of the visuals, which used to feel shallow to me, until I started looking at movies in better depth. Movies are, above everything else, a visual medium – why wouldn’t people think that’s the most important part of the experience? It’s not for me to get all judgy on what people like in movies, but there are particular elements that appeal strongly to me, and when they’re brought together well, that’s what makes a movie great. Such is The Big Short.
Even though I’ve worked in the financial sector for decades, the thought of making a movie about banking and mortgages didn’t seem all that interesting to me – even one about the 2008 crash that devastated the global economy. It’s almost exclusively the type of subject that’s reserved for documentaries that a few people will watch, but occasionally a moviemaker will come along and see the story potential of such a subject and create an absorbing, and enlightening piece of cinema. Of course, many movies are inspired by “real life events”, and all of them have their own spin on the truth, but not all of them require a greater investment on the part of the audience – movies like American Sniper, and 127 Hours can be seen as the kind of character piece that might have been created anyway, even if the actual events had never happened. Even movies like Goodfellas and Apollo 13 bring as much Hollywood to the screen as the events and people that inspired them. No, the kind of movie I’m actually referring to here is one that takes a story that few people would consider adapting for the screen – the procedural.
Like All The Presidents Men, The Big Short is about small events that lead to something huge, events that are uncovered and investigated, and become part of an incremental, unstoppable machine. They’re detective stories, and who doesn’t love a good detective story? True Crime is one of the most successful genres out there – we are fascinated by the mind of not just the killer or the crook, but also the investigator. The characters in The Big Short are definitely investigators – their discovery of the subprime mortgage scam from small beginnings leads to the realization that the financial machinations of the giant banks is a cornerstone of the US – and by extension, the global – economy.
The Big Short is a highly acclaimed piece of work that – like all “based on true events” movies – plays a little loose with the truth, but nevertheless is a solid piece of screen procedural. It’s pretty stylish too, made in a manner that reminded me a lot of another recent true story, The Wolf Of Wall Street. Adam McKay who wrote and directed (actually won the Academy Award for the screenplay) turns in a flashy, frenetic character piece that never at any time bores. It’s a surprising change of pace for McKay, who’s known almost exclusively for his work with Will Ferrell. The Big Short is as far away from Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy as you could ever imagine, but it’s precisely McKay’s comedic background that made him the perfect filmmaker for this adaptation of Michael Lewis’s book The Big Short: Inside The Doomsday Machine. Under the direction of someone like Michael Mann and David Fincher, this could have been a real snoozefest (I mention those directors since they’ve already directed real life procedurals with The Insider, and Zodiac – both good movies, I should say), but McKay’s movie crackles with energy throughout, and it’s livened up with a diverse group of characters – diverse in the sense that not one of them feel like dull copies of each other. Even the smaller roles are well defined and enjoyable to watch. McKay’s multi-layered approach to character detail pays off in a big way, much like the real life events it depicts, and the cast is actually pretty big. I feel another writer would have kept these characters in the background fighting for scraps while Gosling, Carrell, and Bale devoured the meat themselves. It’s a movie where every performance is above each actor’s payscale. Like All The President’s Men before it, the key performances elevate the material from dull behind-the-scenes dot-connecting to something that’s truly enjoyable to watch.
The other thing that makes The Big Short great is that it doesn’t just tell a story. Here, it’s also like All The President’s Men. It educates us. It takes those scenes of dot connecting and tells us why this meltdown happened. It isn’t the story of one man who had great sharpshooting skills, or who hacked through his arm with a pocket knife, it’s a big story about things bigger than us, about people who get together in offices and boardrooms and work together to enrich themselves at the expense of the public. I’m not a rich man, and I bet most of you who read my reviews aren’t either. And I’m a reasonable guy – I don’t generally believe in conspiracy theories either. But these things do happen, and they affect hundreds, thousands, millions of people. If there is one thing that The Big Short and All The President’s Men teach us, it’s that we’re not in control of our destines beyond the small decisions we can make for ourselves. Our governments and financial systems work against us, they subjugate us, and the worst thing is, we either don’t know it, or won’t accept the truth, because ultimately, there isn’t much we can do about it. Revolution, it can happen, but rarely does.
I came away from watching The Big Short with a sense of fulfilment. McKay’s movie isn’t uplifting, but it’s an absorbing, engaging, entertaining piece of work that also manages to educate – but it left me infuriated. What were the lessons learned by the US government or the banking systems? The answer is none. The biggest grand theft in the history of the world is the redirection of tax dollars by the government to the banks that caused the crash by their hubris, and as the movie tells us, very few of these people went to jail. Many of them are still active in a the financial sector, and the same crooked instruments are being sold again, repackaged under different names. But what I took from this, in my simmering outrage, is that I may not have known any of this of not for McKay, and that in the end is what made The Big Short great to me.