Adam McKay’s The Big Short opens with an image of a Salomon Brothers’ bond trading floor in the late seventies. At that time in history, the voiceover explains, working at the bond department of a bank was “downright comatose.” Bankers were no different from accountants. That perception drastically changes with the invention of the mortgage-backed security, a financial innovation that renders bonds sexy. The images on the screen fast-forward thirty years, and suddenly, we see people lining up at a job fair during the 2008 economic crisis. The boring trading floors of the seventies somehow precipitated a financial catastrophe. The voiceover asks, how did this happen? How did a bunch of stodgy traders cause a global meltdown? And what, in heck, is a mortgage-backed security?
I was determined not to like The Big Short. I felt the subject – the 2008 financial crisis – was both overdone and no longer interesting. And from the trailers, I felt this movie would be nothing but a more PG version of The Wolf of Wall Street with an annoying self-righteous tone only an Oscar hopeful film can muster. But I was wrong. The Big Short is a brilliantly filmed movie which explains the economic collapse in a manner that is both didactic and engaging. Documentary, mockumentary, drama, thriller . . . whatever genre you want to call this film, it is money.
Hollywood seems to love the financial collapse of 2008 and Princeton alum Michael Lewis. In the last five years, we’ve watched Margin Call, Too Big to Fail, and Inside Job explain the complicated financial meltdown to the average moviegoer. In the last five years, we’ve also watched screenplays adapted from Michael Lewis’ books, including Moneyball and The Blind Side. The Big Short, a movie about the housing bubble collapse adapted from Michael Lewis’ book of the same name, combines both of the industry’s love affairs.