The Big Short Laughs At How Quickly We Forget The Past

Adam McKay's latest mocks our fuzzy memory of recent history.

-By Brenden Gallagher

In the years following the 2008 financial collapse, a number of films have attempted to get to the heart of the worldwide economic meltdown. Documentaries like Charles Ferguson’s The Inside Job aimed to connect the dots of the collapse and assign blame. Up in the Air, The Company Man, and Margin Call all found different ways of getting at the human cost of the colossal downturn. Adam McKay’s new film The Big Short attempts something entirely different. This film isn’t interested in reckoning with the collapse, in registering pain and outrage, in holding people accountable. That work has been done. The Big Short is about the tragic cycle of history: memory fades and even the worst moments of our past are misremembered, spun, and forgotten.

Anyone over the age of twelve knows the basic story. People were sold mortgages they couldn’t afford. Big banks pretended those bad mortgages were better than they were. Bets were placed on those mortgages, tying them other parts of the economy. When those mortgages went unpaid, the house of cards came tumbling down. Jobs were lost. Lives were ruined.

The Big Short isn’t about the big picture. When big economic concepts come into play they are explained quickly by the likes of guest stars Margot Robbie and Selena Gomez, a necessary sidebar. This movie is about the people who can’t believe the shit storm swirling around them, and decide that it’s a good time to buy insurance against flying feces.

The Fuzziness of History

There is a small moment early on when Jared Vennet (Ryan Gosling) introduces us to his “quant” (a math specialist), Yang. Vennet presents Yang as a Chinese immigrant who doesn’t speak English and placed first in a countrywide math contest. Yang then turns to us and tells us that his name is actually Jiang, that he does speak English, and that he came in second place in that math competition.

Little lies and mistakes are corrected repeatedly throughout The Big Short. A discovery wasn’t made in a corporate lobby, but actually was pieced together from articles in magazines. The details of who was in Las Vegas for a conference are laid out and then rearranged. Little retractions and corrections add up in the film until the epilogue when we are told that all of the executives involved in the financial collapse went to jail— only to be reminded that, in fact, no one was punished except for one unlucky trader. This is a danger when events travel from the present into the past. Details start to blur, some small and some large. The lies that were told at the time are regurgitated as truth, and doubt is cast on objective facts.

In making this film a little under a decade after the events depicted took place, McKay isn’t so close to the events that he is clouded by the visceral emotions of the moment. He isn’t so far away that they have become mere items in a textbook, as analyzed and distant as Pickett’s Charge or the Battle of Waterloo. The story of The Big Short hasn’t quite slipped away into historical eternity, but it has grown fuzzy. We remember that we were mad, but not exactly about what. We remember that people did wrong, but we don’t remember exactly what they did.

The Fight to Remember

The Big Short is Mark Baum’s (Steve Carell) story. Most of the other traders in the film begin as cynics or naive fools and end up not far from where they began. Through the course of The Big Short, Baum evolves from finance curmudgeon into an economic crusader. He jumps into the mortgage market with the same motives as the other traders. He wants to get rich. Eventually, he stops asking how he can make money and starts asking how the hell this is happening. How could the world mortgage market be in danger, and the entire financial sector is turning a blind eye? He talks to homeowners, mortgage brokers, Wall Street traders, and even credit ratings agencies. None of them know how this is happening, but all of them refuse to play the role of Chicken Little.

So they lie.

At the end of his journey, Baum finds himself face to face with one of the luminaries of the financial sector, who is still denying that anything is wrong as stocks plummet around him. He’s lying to himself as he loses a fortune. Even to the bitter end, no one will admit that the world’s markets are about to come crashing down.

And Why We Can’t Forget

The Big Short stacks lies on lies on lies on lies in hopes that we remember the truth. As McKay sees it, in 2008 our sin was pretending this wasn’t going to happen, and in 2015, our sin is pretending nothing ever happened. Since the days of subprime mortgages, we have gone back to business as usual. Of the banks and firms responsible for the collapse, only Lehman Brothers went belly up. Only one executive, Credit Suisse’s Kareem Serageldin, went to jail. Even the toxic, repackaged mortgages that were sold before are being sold again, and a push for regulation in the face of the collapse was rebuffed by financial lobbyists and special interest groups.

It turns out that much like whether the quant was first in the math contest, or whether a discovery was made in a hotel lobby, the facts of the collapse don’t matter. No one has been punished, so who cares who was at fault? Nothing has changed, so who cares what went wrong? Two other recent history films are competing with The Big Short this Oscar season: Spotlight and Steve Jobs. Those two films offer Cardinal Law’s resignation and the creation of the iPod, respectively, as proof that the events took place. Other than our collective memories, what proof do we have that we woke up one day and the financial world had come to an end?

To McKay, the most important part of the story of the financial collapse is that we’ve already forgotten it. If we don’t carefully repeat the truths that brought us to the brink of ruin, he fears that we might convince ourselves that it was all just a bad dream. Even worse, we might convince ourselves that we can do it all over again, and everything would be just fine.