In Defence of ‘The Big Short’

The Big Short is a film about the 2008 global financial crash, told from the perspective of several investment bankers and analysts who spotted the signs of economic collapse way before it happened. I’ve watched this film several times and I always finish it satisfied. Perhaps, in watching it repeatedly over the years, I’ve fallen victim to one of those blind melancholic habits (like watching Friends on repeat) that ruins my critical ‘objectivity’ (whatever that’s supposed to mean). So, to put this to the test, I’m going to break down what I hate about the film, and then focus on what I think really works. I chose because I think a lot of people have seen it, and seen how McKay might have gone downhill from this point.Hopefully I will be able to convince you otherwise.

Before getting to the good, let’s dispatch the bad. There are several things the film did that, frankly, gave me ‘the ick’. Let’s start with this: 

Of course, Margot Robbie doesn’t really give me the ick. In order to explain details necessary for understanding the basics of the financial crash at the heart of the story, McKay force feeds us the nuggets of economic theory direct to the camera, from characters included and excluded from the plot, that aims to create a better understanding amongst a wider audience. I don’t think I even have an issue with this, nor the interjections and turns to camera throughout the film either. This was a large budget film about a very complex event marketed to the general public. How successful the writers were in technically explaining the nature of the crash to those without knowledge about it or economic theory at large I am less certain of. My economics A-Level largely helped me to ignore most of these asides, and I felt like it was clear, but maybe most people feel like they failed, seeing this Letterboxd review:

The main issue I have with this device is just how shallowly Margot Robbie is used. It feels clear that McKay simply thought of her as eye-catching enough to make people listen to boring economic theory. In reality, this scene alienated me, and I’m sure it alienates others, too. It’s possible to make something interesting and say what you want to say without getting a model naked in a sudsy bathtub to say it for you. The Anthony Bourdain and Selena Gomez cameos I was less offended by; I am aware that as a film intended to explain a complex, controversial event to the masses it attempted to exploit A-listers in order to make the film more appealing. Ultimately, a lot of films will fail to make an audience understand the plot or content exactly, especially when it’s historically focused. In my mind this is not really what matters — it is more the emotional impact of the film, and how it makes us remember characters in positions we might have thought about differently about that’s important. I think I could keep going with things to dislike about the film, but perhaps it is time to move onto the positives.

Maybe some of The Big Short’s attempts to be accessible failed, but in other areas I think it did exceedingly well, and I think that it is this (successful) accessibility that we should take note of. It is all very well making beautiful arthouse films that may dazzle the critics and the small pool of cinema enthusiasts that watch them, but in my mind cinema is for big audiences. Films like The Big Short inspire me because, whilst they have their (huge) downfalls that may detract from critical acclaim, they still tell a story in a unique way without alienating a very large group of people.

The pretentious English Literature student in me squirms. William Wordsworth, a famous late 18th Century Romantic poet, wrote at length in his Preface to Lyrical Ballads (a collection of poems by himself and Samuel Coleridge) on the importance of common language and humble scenes, promoting a certain purity of language over the vanity that complex language might suggest. This made his poetry much more accessible, and I see parallels between this and The Big Short. This film does not describe humble scenes (cough, Margot Robbie in a bathtub, cough), but it frequently includes popular music, cuts which are often harsh, shots which are mostly less than a few seconds long and a camera which is pretty much never static. It often looks more like a music video or a TV ad than a film. In my mind, this style is comparable to a basic or elemental literary language, helping convey ideas and thoughts that do not require the viewer to sustain any ornate or flowery sentences or, in this case, visual sequences. There are no very, very long takes, no camera left static for too long, no lengthy absence of music. It might seem ‘common’ or ‘popular’, but I believe this style makes this film accessible without making it dreary, basic, or trite, and this is what impressed me.

The use of a ‘more accessible language’ which makes the film easier to watch hardly makes The Big Short a great film. I thought the acting and casting were very good and that the score was excellent. You can tell how the enormously successful recent HBO show Succession was influenced by this film. Above all, however, I think that the things I like most about this film are its editing and its balance of realism and artifice; though the latter of these two I’m not sure I’ll have space to get onto in this essay. Through editing, directors can convey multiple layers of meaning without having characters say anything at all. There are a few examples I want to reference specifically that are particularly well done in The Big Short. I’ve rendered out these parts of the movie, because what I think is often important in these sections is what we derive from the sequence of images.

To start with: the scene with Dr Bury going to the banks to set up his trade. This takes place at a point in the story where one of the protagonists goes to all of the major banks in New York and effectively ‘bets against’ the housing market, certain of the impending financial crash following the default of millions of Americans’ mortgages. The banks find his ideas nonsensical, but still take his money. This scene is developed against a backdrop of fast-food commercials, scantily-clad dancers, stacks of dollar bills, tall financial buildings with their titles, super-fast military fighter-jets, a random clip from the news, and viral internet clips. In my mind, this very effectively and underhandedly reveals the contemporary frivolity, greed, and toxic consumerism that fueled part of the American economy at the time, effectively mocking it. I’m not going to try to explain every shot because I think that it is in large part up to the viewer to decide what they mean and what relevance each one has. I found this ‘mocking’ really impressive, and wholly different to what seemed like a similar attempt in McKay’s most recent film, Don’t Look Up, which I did not enjoy at all.

Yet, when I think about the editing of The Big Short, this is not the first scene that comes to mind. Instead, I prefer this one

As one of the bankers returns home after a trip away, where he realizes the imminence of an economic collapse, he breaks down in front of his wife. This breakdown is such an important moment of characterisation, revealing the character’s motivations for his behavior and how his trauma is bound up in his perception of the world. As a lip-wobbler I think it’s pretty effective, and I think the way that it’s edited, scrubbing through parts of the couple’s conversation to reveal the root of the banker’s pain, is especially skillful. Again, I’m not such a fan of picking apart these scenes, because I’m not really a massive believer in the extreme close analysis of films. Watch it for yourself and see what you feel. It is probably the scene I liked most.

To conclude, there’s no doubt that The Big Short has a lot of faults. But at the end of the day, this was a film that was supposed to appeal to a vast audience; the forced humor and awkward narration therefore have to be accepted as par for the course in my opinion. The 2008 economic crash affected a colossal amount of people. A film that details this event, one that tries to cover such a large amount of the history and explain it from start to finish, has to be painfully conventional and typical in a lot of ways for it to succeed. Nevertheless, I hope I’ve shown that The Big Short is in some way different, or at least relatively interesting. I hope McKay remembers how to make good films sometime soon. 

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