Is 'The Big Short' a big con? Alex Simpson looks closely at a film where Robin Hood steals money from the rich and keeps it for himself.
At heart, ‘The Big Short’ – which just won Best Adapted Screenplay at the Oscars – is a parable. Much like Robin Hood, it warns of the dangers that come from taking money from the poor for personal gain. While the film pretends to question the moral foundation of the Wall Street establishment, as the narrative unfolds it only serves to uphold and legitimise the basic assumptions of the financial markets. The outcome is another dramatisation of the events surrounding the financial crisis that leaves a sour taste and a questionable moral lesson.
In this parable, King John is played by Wall Street (but it could so easily be set in the City of London or any other global financial hub) representing the bloated greed of wealth, entitlement and privilege. But it could so easily have been set in the City of London or any other global financial hub. Built on asymmetrical contracts of debt, what was once a staid and secure industry that offered a stable funding structure for homeowners has now become a toxic web of sub-prime lending. In this image, the financial services industry has generated its vast wealth and power out of overestimating the public’s ability to repay their debt.
At one stage, the film questions the moral line this raises between stupidity and criminality. 'If stupidity is a crime, my brother-in-law should be arrested,' Ryan Gosling’s character retorts. Throughout the film we are told of how complex financial instruments, such as Collateral Debt Obligations, have a vice-like grip over the society’s most vulnerable.
We follow various hedge fund operators, investors and ‘garage’ traders who have spotted the precarious foundations to this ivory tower. Their intelligence, cynicism and ‘outsider’ status enables them to spot a gap in the market, one which will wreak havoc for many millions of ordinary, low-income members of society. In the Robin Hood parable, it is down to this band of Merry Men to take from the rich ‘fat cats’ and return the wealth to those who have lined their pockets. At this stage the parallels with Robin Hood end. We are told at great lengths of the costs this systemic and reckless form of gambling has on many individuals. Brad Pitt’s character, a “reformed” ex-Wall Street banker now living a renewed life of earthy ethics and simplicity, serves as a moral compass to remind the audience of who is paying the true price of this greed and excess. It is a story that seeks to challenge how the financial service industry has succeeded in privatising wealth yet socialising risk - and yet this still remains a film that upholds the sanctity and virtue of the financial markets.
The Merry Men of 'The Big Short' themselves adhere to the logic of the market, by making a high-risk play which yields a great return. In the financial services industry this is everyone’s dream. It is a competitive landscape that rewards a particular type of risk-taking and combative intelligence. The market does not reward sheep, but selects and bestows wealth upon leaders. In challenging the dominant assumption of housing market growth and betting on a downturn, these Merry Men have pitted their wits against the market, have been ridiculed for their stupidity and yet, by the end of the film, stand victorious. Had they lost, they would have been punished through losses, but their victory rewards them with sizable bonuses and enhanced personal reputations. As an audience, we are being asked to follow and invest emotionally in their market strategy as if it somehow fixes the harms pressed onto those at the bottom of the complex web of Collateral Debt Obligations. In essence, their actions are no different to those of the Wall Street ‘fat cats’. They may not have structured these instruments or traded in them and their outsider status seemingly insulates them from the taint of bankers. However, the entire premise of the film is one in which seven men bet on the destruction of livelihoods and win.
In asking us, the audience, to ‘be on their side’ and follow them through the journey, the effects that the financial services industry has had and continues to have on our everyday lives remain fundamentally unexplained. It is a parable in which Robin Hood steals from the rich and keeps all the proceeds for himself. Brad Pitt reminds us of the social costs of this wealth and fortune, but the sheen of Hollywood glamour sticks. Rather than bringing the viewer closer, and increasing a collective understanding of how we are all inextricably linked to this high-stakes world of greed, aggression and collusion, the film legitimises the accumulation of private wealth. At the same time, those who are paying the highest price for the crisis are the ones who contributed the least to it. It is a film about betrayal, destruction and an industry in need of radical change. Without a greater focus on these social costs, as an audience, we are in danger of becoming further removed from understanding the true causes and ongoing effects of the financial services industry. The ‘true story’ of ‘The Big Short’ is entertaining, but much like the ‘Wolf of Wall Street’, it leaves a sour taste and unanswered questions.