(Spoiler Alert: The bankers who almost destroy the world economy in 2008 are eventually bailed out by the Bush and Obama administrations, and get multi-million-dollar bonuses instead of prison sentences. The United States is now a police state on the verge of electing either a grandstanding racist millionaire or a corrupt Wall Street Democrat as its next President.)
As I arrived at my local movie theater late, and noticed the long line of families waiting to buy tickets for The Force Awakens, I decided to prepare to watch The Big Short by committing a small act of fraud. I snuck in without paying. After all, it’s better to risk arrest, then to miss even one of the previews, which are often an excellent way to measure the current state of public opinion.
The theater, which is located in a conservative, upper-middle-class suburb in northern New Jersey, was packed with white people, mostly yuppies, the majority of whom probably work on Wall Street, the kind of good, solid bourgeoisie who used to yell “get a job” at Occupy Wall Street protesters back in 2011. The previews were no less discouraging. The first was for a film called 13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi by none other than Michael Bey. The second was even worse. A British film called Eye in the Sky, it will star Alan Rickman and Helen Mirren, and will apparently center around a group of “military intelligence officers” struggling to decide whether or to kill a “high value target” (a big bad terrorist) with a drone or to back off and avoid civilian casualties. Why oh why Helen Mirren? Why would you act in this fatuous propaganda? Do you really need the money that badly?
I was pleasantly surprised. First of all, The Big Short is just plain fun. Even though it ran for 2 hours and 20 minutes, I was never bored. Brad Pitt, Ryan Gosling, and and Christian Bale are all excellent, and barely recognizable, as three oddballs who understand long before 2008 that the housing bubble is destined to pop. There are entertaining, and highly informative, cameos by Margot Robbie, Anthony Bourdain, and Selena Gomez. Yes, Selena Gomez. She tells us more about Collateralized Debt Obligations (CDOs) in 90 seconds than CNN told us in a decade. As The Big Short hurtled towards the inevitable, the financial industry crash in the Spring and Fall of 2008 and the Great Recession, I was unsure if I wanted to get out my guillotine and start sharpening the blade, or just plain laugh. In 2008, the American people got fucked up the ass by Wall Street, and what did we do? We blamed poor people and immigrants.
Nevertheless, The Big Short is such a lucid, and genuinely radical, indictment of the financial services industry that if enough people see it, my fondest dream — to see the bankers loaded up into tumbrils and carted away to be relieved of their heads in front of a bloodthirsty mob of sans-culottes — might just come true. Don’t get me wrong. I’m sure some holier than thou ultra-leftist could pick a few holes in The Big Short. It is a mainstream, big-budget Hollywood film, after all, but there’s no getting around its central message. The business model of Wall Street is fraud. What’s more, unlike a TV show, which would feature a tough guy cop, or a 1970s paranoia movie, which would have a crusading journalist, the “heroes” of The Big Short are just as greedy and unlikeable as the corrupt system they hope, not to bring down, but to use to make money. Neither the corporate media nor the United States government are spared. A yuppie Wall Street journal reporter refuses to investigate what would have been a major scoop because he doesn’t want to risk his access at Goldman Sachs. A Securities and Exchange Commission official, a red-headed floozy played by Karen Gillan, shows up at a financial services convention in Las Vegas, not to investigate fraud, but to circulate her resume, and prepare to cash in for “services rendered” after she leaves the government. Moody’s Investors Service and Standard & Poor’s, two corrupt bond rating agencies which are still in business and as corrupt as ever, are represented by a cranky old woman, who not only doesn’t care that she’s a bought and paid for employee of the big banks, but who is quite literally going blind.
I suppose that if I have any criticism of The Big Short, it probably has something to do with how the three anti-heroes played by Pitt, Bale, and Gosling are maybe just a bit too likable. A great filmmaker like Jean-Luc Godard would have made all three characters so flat out repulsive we would have looked forward to them meeting some kind of horrible death. In some ways, I suppose, The Big Short re-imagines the great man as an unpleasant oddball, a misfit with a glass eye suffering from Asperger’s, a fat nerd who feels guilty about what he’s doing, but takes the money anyway, a smarmy yet self-aware yuppie dirtbag who laughs all the way to the bank. We root for the system to collapse and prove them right. We want them to win, to walk away with hundred of millions, even billions of dollars, and live happily ever after. Yet, as clever, and cynical, as Gosling, Bale, and Steve Carell are in their respective roles, they’re never quite clever or cynical enough. Wall Street is rigged, even against people who understand how it works. The Big Short’s three anti-heroes become, in a sense, just three more average Americans caught up in a scam. The more you think you’ve fucked the system, the more the system fucks you. The more you think you’re in on the con, the better chance there is that you just might be the patsy. There’s only one solution. Bring the whole thing down.