The Big Short

A few years ago I happened to overhear a snippet of conversation between a middle aged dad and his teenaged son. It started with the father trying to think of a movie name and drawing a blank. "Hey, what's the movie with the explosion?" he asked his kid.

I had walked into the conversation cold and had no context at all but of course I immediately thought I knew the correct answer. I silently guessed that it was probably the first Die Hard, because the finale where Bruce Willis is jumping off the top of Nakamura Tower directly into the fireball is one of the most iconic action sequences of all time.

"World Trade Center?" his son guessed.

"Yeah! That movie was awesome," the dad said.

As you might expect I was dumbfounded. For one, how is World Trade Center "the movie with the explosion" and not "the movie about the thing that really happened and which sucked a lot for everyone?" And more importantly: who calls that movie awesome? Sure, you are allowed to think that movie is well made, or to think that it was culturally important, but awesome? You aren't supposed to enjoy a movie that invokes very real (and very recent) mass suffering.

Similarly, I don't think you can describe the Big Short as awesome. Oh, sure, this movie about a handful of Wall Street outsiders who made billion dollar bets against the housing market before the 2008 crash is well made. It is funny and it is smart. It is surprisingly fast paced and immaculately acted and morally important. But it is not awesome because it invokes very real (and very recent) mass suffering, and I don't think you can call that awesome in good conscience.

I'm not going to summarize the plot of the Big Short in great detail because a) describing howa bunch of semi-autistic dudes completed a bunch of complicated financial transactions is probably more trouble than it is worth and b) if you have been paying any kind of attention in the last seven years you probably have some sense of what went down anyway.

Instead I will just say this: the Big Short is an in depth exploration of a very simple question. Back in 2005 and 2006 a handful of pessimistic numbers nerds realized we were in a housing bubble, but all of the geniuses at the big Wall Street banks missed it. How did that happen?

The first answer this movie offers is that maybe the Wall Street guys were just ignorant. After all, we are talking about millions upon millions of transactions, each of which was bundled and rebundled, and each of which was swathed in hundreds of pages of paperwork. It would be a bummer to think that the whiz kids who run our economy weren't doing their due diligence, but it would be understandable, because that how could you ever hope to understand all of those numbers?

But no, that wasn't it. A trained observer might not have been able to spot every individual crack in the foundation but the overall pattern should have been obvious. There were too many people with no income buying too many too expensive houses - the math just didn't add up.

The Big Short then suggests that this was all due to stupidity. Which again would make sense. After all, a lot of the deals that were being made were obviously dumb, so maybe the people who were making them just didn't know what they were doing. And obviously this would be worse than if everyone was just ignorant (because it is a lot easier to educate someone than it is to actually make them smarter) but it wouldn't be the end of the world.

But no, that wasn't it, either, because it is very clear that a lot of people in power knew what was going on long before they stepped in to do anything about it. The greedy fucks at the top were making a lot of money selling crap to people, then they were making even more money betting amongst each other that their own crap would fail, and they didn't want the money train to stop, even though they knew they were rolling the dice with the world's economy. They weren't going to stop dipping their fingers into the gravy boat until every last ounce of gravy had been swallowed down.

Which leaves us at corruption. I'm going to assume that you haven't been living under a rock for the entire Obama presidency and thus you already know the gist of the Big Short's ultimate argument - namely that big bank a-holes wrecked the economy, then went to the government for bail outs, then turned around and donated big chunks of that money to Congress members so that there would be a minimal amount of after the fact investigations, regulations or punishments.

However, knowing that going in doesn't make the shock of the film's conclusion any less unsettling. In fact, it makes it even worse, because the out-in-the-open boldness of their thievery just adds insult to injury. If they truly thought that the general public's scorn could ever affect them then they would probably have tried to hide their massively unethical behavior at least a little bit... But no; they seem to be fine with our anger. And why shouldn't they be? They haven't suffered a single consequence as a result of all of this horseshit...

So is the Big Short entertaining? Oh, yes. And is it must see viewing? Definitely. But don't call it awesome, because awesome things aren't this infuriating.

Winner: No one wins with this shit

The Big Short on IMDB