There comes a point about halfway through Adam McKay’s housing crisis comedy/drama “The Big Short” during which the audience is whole-heartedly rooting for the collapse of the American housing market. Our three disparate bands of financial heroes have each seen the terrible truth and bet big on what we, the audience, already know to be true – Wall Street is full of toxic, corrupt liars and they are wrong. We gleefully cheer along with our characters waiting for the fated and vindicating payday.
This theme is seen most clearly from the perspective of the self-righteous grump and audience surrogate, Mark Baum (a fictional character based on the real life Steve Eisman), played just manic enough by Steve Carell. Baum is a small-time Wall Street hedge fund manager kept on the outside by a furious sense of right and wrong which does not mesh with traditional big bank ethos. In a movie where any dramatic tension based on what’s going to happen next is immediately unavailable, “The Big Short” finds it’s drama in mirroring Mark Baum’s arc in the audience’s sympathies.
Baum sets this up early in the film. Ryan Gosling’s Jared Vennett (another made-up character based on a real guy, Greg Lippman) approaches Baum’s fly-by-night fund with an scheme to short the housing market, the biggest market in the country (get it?). Baum states explicitly that he hopes Vennett is right about housing’s imminent failure. Baum is filled with a righteous anger toward the financial industry and he plans to vent this anger by beating them at their own game, by outsmarting the ostensible smartest guys in the country. And we in the audience are right with him. As goes Baum so goes the audience.
The tragedy of the character – and, by extension, us – is that he is still playing the game; he is part of it. We are immediately on the side of the guy who wants to make the slimy rich do-nothing bankers look foolish but as he discovers the true depths of finance capital’s twisted corruption Baum, through his own complicity, sees himself in the banks, and the audience sees itself in Baum, when moments ago we were joyfully pumping our fists for the deal that’ll really stick to those rich guys. This moment of self-realization is both shattering and the obvious fact that Baum has been avoiding the entire movie.
Eventually, of course, Baum is proven right and the collapse we were rooting for crashes into the country’s working poor. The film plays this not as the triumph of our hero’s superior intellect and financial savvy but rather as a quiet tragedy. In finding “victory” Baum learns that being right is not justice and injustice is worse than being wrong.
In the background throughout the film, Baum is mourning his brother’s off-screen suicide. At the film’s emotional climax, as Baum grapples with whether or not he will cash in on the financial ruin of millions of Americans, Baum confides in his wife that moments before his brother’s death he asked Baum for help and Baum’s first instinct was to offer money. In the same sense, Baum discovered that the banking industry was perpetrating a massive fraud against the entire country and his natural instinct was to make as much money from it as he could. Meanwhile, millions of Americans lose their jobs, homes and savings. And Baum’s brother is dead.
And that’s the film’s true lesson. You do not defeat capital by being better at making money than them. They will always eventually win at that game. This is not a situation where one can work within the system to tear it down.
We can revel in the big bankers getting knocked down a peg but that reveling doesn’t mean a damn thing if we don’t stop them from turning around and destroying the economy again in precisely the same way they destroyed it the last time. It is not enough to simply know that bankers are greedy or selfish or stupid or corrupt if that knowledge becomes uncoupled from action.