The Big Short (dir. Adam McKay, 2015)
by Christopher B. Barnett
Plot Based on Michael Lewis’ 2010 book, The Big Short: Inside the Doomsday Machine, The Big Short tells the story of a handful of financial insiders who, in the mid-2000s, realized that the American housing market was on the verge of collapse.
Themes Not unlike Martin Scorsese’s The Wolf of Wall Street (2013), The Big Short is a kind of morality play, whose flamboyant direction belies a purposeful condemnation of the American financial sector. Yet, whereas The Wolf of Wall Street takes the viewpoint of a “pump and dump” scam artist, The Big Short centers on a handful of investors who discovered one of the greatest scandals in American economic history — namely, that the housing boom of the 2000s was being propped up by risky subprime loans. This perspectival difference facilitates a different approach to the problem. Scorsese’s film revels in the hedonistic nihilism of its protagonist, Jordan Belfort (Leonardo DiCaprio), effectively answering the question: what does the dark underbelly of American capitalism look like? It is an intoxicating portrait, albeit one that is reluctant to probe its anthropological implications. There’s no doubt that Belfort is a “bad guy,” and yet, the film suggests, is he not just an extension of a systemic problem? Such, at any rate, seems to be the point of his early tutorials at the hands of Wall Street veteran (Matthew McConaughey, as memorable as possible in a five-minute role):
In contrast, director Adam McKay imbues The Big Short with reflections on the human condition writ large. Sure, there are a number of puzzling — if also fascinating — commentaries on banking practices, so many, in fact, that one would by no means be foolish to watch the film with the Barron’s Dictionary of Finance and Investment Terms in hand. But the film keeps circling back to a single question: did not the roots of the 2007-08 financial crisis lie in the hearts of people, rather than in mere systemic breakdown? Throughout the film, it is observed that the willingness to take on jeopardous subprime loans stems not only from human greed but also from gullibility and, yes, “stupidity.” In other words, people so badly wanted to live in luxury that they were ready to overlook facts; their investment practices did not reflect reason so much as bet against reason:
Of course, this conclusion runs counter to what Adam Smith saw as one of the basic presuppositions of capitalism — namely, that market economies are driven not just by self-interest but, more precisely, by rational self-interest. That The Big Short suggests otherwise gives it postmodern, counter-Enlightenment appeal that, in my view, opens it up to theological commentary. For, after all, Christian theology has long maintained that humanity, for all of its philosophical and technological ingenuity, is marked by a fall from the good. This fall is not insuperable — such, indeed, is the “good news” offered by Jesus Christ — but it is stubborn and ever ominous. One dismisses it only at one’s peril.
McKay’s film underlines the latter point, and thus it stands as a surprising complement to a book such as Fyodor Dostoevsky’s Notes from Underground (1864). While so many are preoccupied with human progress, these works fix on a more sinister side of human nature — the one that confounds the rational egoism apparently underlying modern life. They remind us, in turn, that no human endeavor is pure, just as no bet — even one vouchsafed by institutional authority — is a “sure thing.” As the book of Ecclesiastes so pointedly puts it: “Bubbles…everything is bubbles.”