Recognizing that it’s only January, I can already say with some degree of confidence that The Big Short is the best movie that’s going to be released this year. As a movie, it succeeds on every level. The acting, directing, editing, cinematography, music, pacing, and script are all superb. The movie has an eclectic range of emotional and genre modes as well. Sometimes hilarious, other times tear-jerking, always compelling.
But it’s the content and delivery of The Big Short that surprised and thrilled me most of all. It pulls no punches and spares no players in its damning exposé of the 2000s housing bubble and attending worldwide economic crisis. What should be a heavy-handed documentary snoozefest is anything but.
Part of the problem with the housing bubble, bank crisis, and bailout is that even some of the smartest people in Wall Street didn’t see it coming and hardly understood its causes even after the fact. So what chance do we, the average work-a-day schmucks who did nothing but suffer from the crisis, have of understanding its labyrinthine inner workings?
With the help of The Big Short, we have a chance. The director, Adam McKay, sprinkled the whole movie with brilliantly simplified direct-address explanations of key concepts delivered by real-name celebrities. Not only do these insertions assist viewers right at those points where they may have been mentally checking out, they also cleverly point out one of America’s great weaknesses: we refuse to learn unless the learning is entertaining. The first of these insertions (an explanation of sub-prime mortgages by a pretty actress taking a bubble bath) both caters to and criticizes our mental and moral shortcomings.
But even with some of the more “dumbed-down” explanations, you can’t leave your brain at the theater entrance. The Big Short will force you to think. In fact, the very premise of the movie is that not thinking is part of what got us in hot water in the first place. And The Big Short doesn’t have a merely historical value either. Because we didn’t learn anything from the housing bubble meltdown, and we’re doing virtually the exact same thing again.
But in spite of The Big Short’s monumental success in exposing and explaining the fraudulent, incompetent, greed-driven insanity of the housing bubble, it doesn’t give us any indication how we are supposed to fix such crony capitalism today. It doesn’t even purport to. It leaves that job to us.
But honestly, if Adam McKay thought his audience needed to be spoon fed readily-available information by a pretty woman in a bubble bath, why would he think we have the mental acumen or moral compunction to figure out a completely novel solution to this complicated issue?
On the other hand, I’m quite pleased The Big Short didn’t attempt to deliver a solution, because I’m sure it would have been disappointing. As it is, this movie doesn’t press any particular political agenda even though I am pretty sure the producers of this movie do in fact have one. And I don’t agree with it, in point of fact.
Adam McKay, and fellow collaborator Will Ferrell, both endorse Bernie Sanders for president. Yes. That’s right. Bernie. Stinking. Sanders. I can’t tell you how craptacular that is. Because it means that not even McKay understands the economics that undergirded the housing bubble collapse, even after he directed a masterful movie designed to explain it.
And on that point, the movie does leave out one very crucial piece of information from its explanation. It’s this: the banks didn’t start giving out loans to just about anybody with a pulse just so they could sell more improperly rated mortgage bonds and make more money. They were first encouraged to give out more loans to low-income families when the “compassionate” federal government told the banks it would subsidize the losses to “help the poor achieve the American dream.” It was only after the federal government was subsidizing housing (you know, to help poor average Americans) that the banks decided to start the shady business of selling all the newly created bonds built on sub-prime mortgages. They saw an opportunity to make a profit with nearly no risk to themselves. They knew the federal government would bail them out if they over-reached.
So if Adam McKay thinks Bernie Sanders—Mr. Everything-Should-Be-FREE-for-Poor-Americans—is a solution, McKay is out of his mind. One-percenter greed definitely had a part to play in the housing bubble crisis. But misguided compassion and big government subsidies had just as much, if not more of, a part to play. Just look at the Affordable Care Act. The purported reason for the ACA was to, obviously, make healthcare more affordable for poor Americans. Why did the insurance companies buy into it, though? Because they wanted to get on the federal government subsidized gravy train. It’s actually quite common for big business to lobby for federal government subsidies or protections under the auspices of humanitarian or social concerns.
And McKay is buying right into it. His heart for America and for average Americans is obvious throughout the movie, but like so many bleeding-heart liberals, he just doesn’t understand that the federal government is the least trustworthy institution in the nation. The flat fact is that there is no collective solution for any social ill. There is only an individual solution. Each individual must do his part. But it’s so much easier to hand the job over to the government. Or trickle-down economics. Or whatever. Anything to shed personal responsibility and sacrifice.
McKay thinks we can vote our way out of another crisis. That we need to punish the executives and high rollers who never paid for their crimes against America. Yeah. We should have punished the numerous executives who screwed the American people. But it’s the “compassionate” civil government that pimped us out to the executives in the first place. As usual, the johns have gone free. The pimps have gone free too. The only people who got punished here are the prostitutes. Yeah. That’s us.
So are we going to vote our way out of this? We would like to believe that. Wouldn’t it be easier to solve all of our problems through one act of civic duty every four years? But that’s not how this thing works. No matter who we vote for in the next election, we’re really only getting a chance to vote for our next pimp. No matter which pimp sits in the Oval Office, we’re still going to be a nation that’s willing to sell our virtues, our values, our institutions, our freedoms, and our liberties for a little more security.
So go see The Big Short. It’s a fantastic movie. But recognize that the federal government has no solution for this. And neither does big business. The only solution to this crisis is for individuals to be willing to sacrifice whatever is necessary to do what is right.
In other words, we’re doomed.