Go Long the Big Short (Review)

I am beginning to see Michael Lewis, author of the book that formed the basis for the film, as one of the most important authors of the 21st century.

I have only read a few of his books, but I already know him the way I know other very good writers: when I read his books, I despair at the excesses and folly he makes accessible and visible (not everything he covers is simple or overt), and I take hope and inspiration while his protagonists (real people) act as proof that conscience and virtue are still at large in the world.

The full title of his book is The Big Short: Inside the Doomsday Machine. It has as a backdrop the events leading up to the Great Recession of 2008 and the bursting of the real estate bubble. But as with all the best stories, it takes the historical and makes it personal. The movie version’s list of strong performances by top actors is profound: Christian Bale, Steve Carell, Brad Pitt and Ryan Gosling all shine in this film.

What caught my attention was that while most of the movie’s heroes (the money managers and traders who bet the bubble would burst) were outcasts with a conscience, the overpaid functionaries who took their bets at the big banks were herd creatures, followers, and Kool-Aid drinkers. The idea that the little guy (they were all men in this movie) might go up against the giants of perhaps the largest and most complex institution known to man—the global financial system—and survive or prevail, is beyond gratifying.

Director Adam McKay did well to keep the movie from needing to be subtitled: the language of finance is very esoteric. He used amusing breakaways to explain some of the complex financial engineering created to market, sell, and insure mortgages, and he broke the fourth wall and had characters speak to the camera or narrate some passages in order to facilitate the translation from the moneyspeak of Wall Street to Main Street moviegoers.

It worked.

As someone who did see disaster in the making as that mania and bubble was brewing (like those in the movie, I was early), I worry that we have too many followers and herd creatures, and too few independent thinkers with a conscience. Despite the mantra of one of the most famous financial personas ever invented, “Greed, for lack of a better word,” is not good.


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