THE BIG SHORT is a movie that I am kinda surprised exists; It’s not an action blockbuster, it’s not a meditative biopic or an engrossing romance. It sits in that awkward territory of “based on a true story” movies, which in order to sell or for creative reasons are often embellished versions of the truth that inspired them.
However despite this trend The Big Short is, in terms of the spectrum of fidelity to the true story, much closer to a documentary. Even worse from the perspective of saleability, it deals with some tricky financial terms and a fair bit of technical jargon, and so has to occasionally take breaks to explain what it is talking about in a comprehensible way.
Not only that, but the story it is based on is one everyone feels like they pretty much kind of already know; the story of how in 2008 a long-term series of mistakes (and possible fraud) relating to the housing market and certain types of financial products consisting of large bundles of mortgages were uncovered, when millions of people who should probably never have been given mortgages defaulted on their debts, causing the banks that had bet on these mortgages to lose astronomical amounts of money, leading to a global financial collapse.
This saleability problem extended to the cinema; when I went to see The Big Short the cinema was woefully empty, which is a shame, but I can’t say I blame people for not finding the initial pitch of this film to be immediately engrossing. I was keen to see it, but then again I am a massive nerd who listens to economics podcasts in her spare time.
Given all these things, it’s surprising that The Big Short exists at all, and yet it does, featuring a number of big name stars. Even more surprisingly, it’s profoundly engrossing, complex and even moving in an odd sort of way.
The structure of the film is fairly simple; it tells the story of three groups of people, all of whom predicted the collapse of the housing market and decided to “short” toxic financial products (shorting being financial jargon for betting against something; when you short something you get more money if that thing does poorly, so when they short the housing market they are betting on it failing).
Hopping back and forth between these three stories the film follows the traditional three act structure, with the set-up in the first act explaining what is happening and addressing the discovery of the imminent collapse. The second act, where we find the conflict, is where the film really excels, showcasing the complex and difficult consequences of betting against the market. The third act, the conclusion, deals with the financial collapse itself and, rather than being the simple, emotionally satisfying pay-off one might expect, reveals itself to be just as complex and emotional as the second act, with a sense of tension and internal conflict which never goes away, even being reinforced by the final line of the film.
That said, it’s not its structure that makes The Big Short shine; rather the film’s enduring commitment to telling a complex story in a clear and compelling way without sacrificing the nuance of the situation. It would be very easy to oversimplify this story, to tell it leaving the audience no wiser about economics, simply spinning the big banks as evil and the guys who bet against them as being shining knights of justice.
The Big Short instead avoids painting those it follows as simple heroes without fault, and takes every opportunity to remind the audience that it is far more likely that people are simply wrong rather than evil. The opening narration even refers to the “heroes” of the piece as outsiders and weirdos, and to a degree they all are, and this causes them problems; not only because they are betting against the system but also because their own particular elements of weirdness, which seem to actually be what put them in a position to realize what was going on in the first place, put them at odds with those they need to work with to be successful.
It is very much a film which celebrates individuality and a strength of one’s convictions, but makes it very clear that those things can often set one in a position that makes it hard to function, both in society in general and interpersonally.
The moment I realized how good The Big Short is occurred during the third act (although I had similar moments during the second act, but the final act is what elevated the film from being good to being great), where it became apparent that the film was really committed to showing that there is no such thing as a simple heroic victory.
Even when the market begins to collapse and our heroes are vindicated, they are all very much still at risk of losing everything; if the banks collapse they may still lose everything. That moment – which is foreshadowed at the end of the second act, where it really hits home that the very thing they bet on happening may still be their downfall – is the moment where the commitment to nuance and complexity really pays off.
One small issue is that on a technical level The Big Short is nothing special. A number of the techniques used, especially a fairly large number of jarring cuts and some sequences which feel like a jumble of disconnected noise and images, seem very much out of place in a film that had so much thought put into it at the narrative level. I can’t help but feel that these let the film down somewhat; if The Big Short does miss out on the Academy Award for Best Picture (for which it has been nominated), these sequences and technical decisions may well be the reason why.
Overall I recommend The Big Short, even if at first glance it may not seem like your kind of film. It manages to maintain its commitment to factual and narrative complexity without becoming incomprehensible, and tells a true story while retaining an interest in the lives of those involved and their stories.
This gives it an emotional edge, and some smart fun writing helps prevent it from veering into being a dry documentary. It’s really something special and interesting, and I would encourage you to give it a look if it is still in cinemas by the time this gets published. It will be screening at the Commodore until the 18th, and may come to the Arts Centre at a later date.