“The Big Short” in review: The fire next time

Zap those zombies. Silence the serial killers. Get out of outer space. Cancel cancer and forget about fantasy. The very best films of the last few years have been made about something more dramatic…and more frightening! The Great Recession of 2008 has given us our new apocalyptic threat.

The film version of Michael Lewis’ non-fiction book “The Big Short” is a high percentage earner in the Great Recession sweepstakes. Steve Carrell, Christian Bale, Ryan Gosling and Brad Pitt take us over market mania mountains, from heated housing highs to the crash and burn recession rupture.

Starting separately, but later intersecting and overlapping, these four principals recognize and try to capitalize on market weaknesses. Aided and abetted by able assistants, they recognize the false value created by fraudulent and shoddy practices and the lack of critical thinking. Although they come at the market from slightly different perspectives, each character represents outside analysis that challenged lazier conventional wisdoms. Each group is also highly critical of the Gilded Age venality and damage potential of the housing bubble.

The film mixes broad humor, captivating drama and sharp characterizations, particularly that of Carrell’s character Mark Baum – the real life Steve Eisman. Editing, cuts, didactic asides and useful definition of insider terms pull the audience along the bumpy economic road. All-white board rooms and self-congratulatory back rooms reek of short-sighted received knowledge and solipsism. At one dramatic turning point, Carrell is virtually laughed off the stage as he predicts a crash…while in real time Morgan Stanley and Lehman Brothers stocks are plummeting.

The Big Short is a worthy housing crisis companion to the stellar 99 Homes, which deals more with on-the-ground misery of the victims of eviction and the corruption of cutting-edge real estate agents of doom. The fictionalized accounts of Margin Call and Wolf of Wall Street amplify the corporate corruption which nurtured the crisis. Rounding out the Great Recession’s fine film quintet is Inside Job, which in documentary fashion exhumes the root causes which Big Short dramatizes.

Two small weakness should be mentioned. First, the film repeatedly tells us that virtually no one saw the housing crash coming. This is just not so. The vast majority of buttoned-down, boardroom boneheads ignored warning signs. But anyone who had studied history or was not completely in the thrall of the market Zeitgeist could see storm clouds and occasional flashes of lightning. You didn’t need to be Roger Babson to see that Newton’s Law would soon take effect.

Furthermore, the film a bit too easily characterizes the great calamity as a one-off. Certainly the economic crisis was ignited by the faux capitalization of the housing market. But in reality, it was the crisis of capitalism writ large, a severe economic dislocation that reflects the weakness of our economic system as a whole, not just the greed of this age and culture.

As the film notes in its epilogue, systemic corrective measures were not taken after the crash, despite its severity. The same types of practices are creeping back into the market to threaten our current housing boom. The next time we may not be lucky enough to have leadership which at least minimizes the damage at 8 million job losses and 6 million houses. The next time we may be burning down the house.

Photo: Wikimedia


Michael Berkowitz
Michael Berkowitz

Michael Berkowitz, a veteran of the civil rights and anti-war movements, has been Land Use Planning Consultant to the government of China for many years. He taught Chinese and American History at the college level, worked with Eastern Kentucky Welfare Rights Org. with miners, and was an officer of SEIU.