Thursday, January 7, 2016

The Big Short—a second look

Tuesday, I saw The Big Short for the second time.  I sat next to friend who has been making commercial-grade documentaries since the 1970s.  It was an afternoon matinee so we had the theater essentially to ourselves.  Which was probably a good thing because friend got all the jokes (and there are quite a few in this movie.)  We spent time afterwards trying to evaluate what we had seen.  And while we discussed the technical brilliance of the shot selections and the editing, what we really wanted to know was whether this innovative form of story-telling was an effective way of conveying serious information.  We came to no hard conclusions but we certainly thought the approach was worth a try.

The next night, I hear from Tony and he has now seen The Big Short.  I tend to take Tony seriously anyway, but in this case, he is the man who has plowed through Lewis' book multiple times so he has extra credentials.  Unlike my friend the documentarian, Tony is far more skeptical of video and TV in general.  He tends to think that TV watching turns people's brains into mush and goodness knows, he has plenty of evidence to back him up.  We discussed the fidelity of the movie to the book.  Mostly we discussed whether you can really pack a subject as complex as the 2008 global economic meltdown in a two-hour movie and still make it entertaining.  Tony seemed to think that all the important information was in the film but that most folks would need to watch it multiple times to comprehend it all.

As someone who had just seen it a second time, I could not help but agree.  And I start out knowing what a credit default swap is so when those incredibly clever explanations surfaced during the film, I could sit back and be entertained (and trust me, I usually needed a break from the breakneck pace of the story-telling.) So I went looking to see what the folks who write reviews for IMDb had to say.  Almost everyone has high praise for one aspect or another of this brilliant effort at moviemaking but as to my questions, a significant number suggest that multiple viewings are recommended, an interesting number mentioned how the 2008 meltdown affected them personally, and another group commented as people who were inside the offices where these economic crimes were committed.  There was a small group that complained they just didn't get it.  What is remarkable is how small this group is.  Or maybe not—people who don't understand something are often loathe to admit it.

The reason I am so serious about evaluating the story-telling effectiveness of The Big Short is that for many, MANY subjects, the public is so uniformed / misinformed that to effectively participate in a discussion on major policy issues will require crash courses in the basics.  Now it can be legitimately argued that some subjects are so complex, it will be better to leave the big decisions to highly-trained experts.  Even so, most people want to be included in any issue that directly affects their lives.  Most environmental issues fall under this heading so even though the crowd assigned to manage a smooth transition to a greener tomorrow may be required to be elite specialists, they rest of us at least want to know the big direction their expertise will take us.  So even though we will never reach some pure-consensus-democracy on the big issues, or even if that is a good idea, we will still need effective communication with the general public on a host of public policy matters.

In many ways, The Big Short is simply another variation on the model developed by The Daily Show and now John Oliver over at HBO.  The key to these shows is relentless research which produces the basic case that some government official is being ridiculous.  From there, the job gets easier because the funny comes from demonstrating the distance between the ridiculous posturing and the best facts the staff can find.  Not only do many find this approach highly amusing (I am one of them) it is incredibly effective in informing people.  Studies have shown people who get their news from places like The Daily Show are better informed than from any other source including public television.

But probably the best way to determine how effective The Big Short has been is if we see an organized pushback from big money.  But because the movie is so well organized and its case is so rock-solid, big money may just choose to ignore it and hope it disappears as social commentary like Wolf of Wall Street did.  Of course, WOWS was mostly an overlong demonstration for how boring people who have done too many drugs can be—The Big Short mentions the degeneracy of the money boys but there are no drug-taking scenes.  Discrediting this movie will be very difficult.

So here's to the success of The Big Short.  I see the box-office take has already passed the cost to make the thing.  And because this is a film people will want to see multiple times, it will probably become profitable even by Hollywood accounting standards.  This is a good thing because I can think of about 50 subjects that could stand this sort of treatment.


  1. My main thought, as I read through your second thoughtful look at “The Big Short” movie, is that it’s still (mostly in my opinion) talking about money as if money itself is the “main thing” not the “incidental thing” that (I think) money ought to be. As long as we keep talking about money as the main thing (as the most important irreplaceable irreducible aspect of human existence and endeavor) any pushback from “big money” won’t be necessary, because as long as we still accept “money itself” as the main thing it wins (no matter what else we do or don’t).

    The only way I can imagine winning (the war) against “money” is to take it out of the game (as a major player). Only then (in my opinion) if we can accomplish that, will we have a chance to solve all of our other (really big and important) problems on earth: the specter of nuclear holocaust, climate change, terrorism (fear of terrorism), poverty, ignorance, despair, disease, hunger and equitable healthy habitat for all, with liberty and justice for all, guaranteed!

    I’ll stop there for now (I have a lot more to say about all of that, but) I want to thank you (and Tony) again for all you’re doing and sharing, because “Real Economics” and “Elegant Technology” is "really" good stuff! I look forward to each new posting. And the deeper I delve into the inner sanctums of your site the more interesting it becomes. Thank you.

    1. Good points. I was thinking about some of those things yesterday when trying to come up with something relevant to say about a movie I am probably making too much of a fuss about. But one question bugged me more than the rest and it was, "Why did the real economy have to suffer from all those disasters like millions unemployed simply because some bets went bad at the casino?" Obviously, someone (or a lot of someones) is taking the whole money subject WAY too seriously.

      I'll try to write on this subject if and when I get some clarity to my thinking. (sigh)

      And thanks for the compliments.

  2. "Borrowed" a copy from the Internet around Christmas, still haven't seen it. Frankly, not sure I want to. I know what happened, but I'm not sure I need to better know how. And I don't want to like these guys. I've read accounts that say their actions exacerbated the crisis by encouraging the bankers to make more bad loans.

    Mostly I just want all those people in prison. Go, Bernie, go!

    1. Even more interesting is the fact that the "heroes" of this movie would not have been able to collect on the bets they had made without the government bailout of the institutions that wrote their credit default swaps.

      So you are right, there are no "heroes" in this movie—just a few people slightly less insane than the Wall Street mob.