The Big Short

Reflections on movie The big short

Wall Street collapses in The Big Short. The 2008 financial crisis left millions in the United States unemployed and without homes. It expanded into a worldwide financial and economic crisis. Not surprisingly in America, Hollywood revisits the economic ‘bubble’ created by mortgage dealers and reckless -too big to fail- banks.

The big short is a comedy-drama film directed and co-written by Adam McKay. The film was released in December 2015. It is based on the non-fiction book of Michael Lewis; The Big Short: Inside the Doomsday Machine (2010). Lewis writes about the financial crisis of 2008, a crisis triggered by the build-up of the housing market and the credit bubble. His book, like the film adaptation, spans the years leading up to the 2008 crash. Lewis is following those few who believed the bubble would burst, and who figured out how to profit from it. Their roles are played by Christian Bale, Ryan Gosling, Steve Carell and Brad Pitt. Their flamboyant performances are what make The Big Short watchable. All of the male characters are clearly defined by bizarre traits that serve to show the types of impudent personalities that thrive in such a chaotic environment.

Types of impudent personalities that thrive in a chaotic environment.
Types of impudent personalities that thrive in a chaotic environment.

Three storylines are developed in this film. The autistic portrayed hedge fund manager Michael Burry (Christian Bale) discovers in 2005 that the U.S. housing market is extremely unstable. It is based on ‘subprime’ loans of high risk and providing fewer and fewer returns. He predicts the market to collapse in around 2007 and decides to profit from this situation. He develops a short-selling investment strategy and that is what catches the attention of stockbroker Jared Vennett (Ryan Gosling) and traumatized hedge fund manager Mark Baum (Steve Carell). With the last two persons a second storyline develops. In the third storyline two eager young investors decide to become involved in the credit default swaps and they are successfully mentored by retired banker Ben Rickert (Brad Pitt). The three narratives are linked by the shrewd Vennett who ‘informs’ the viewers of the film and confuses them intentionally.

Adam McKay wants to enlighten and infuriate the public with his portrait of those who profited from the 2008 financial collapse. Becoming aware of an upcoming catastrophe, the only decent human thing to do is raising the alarm. But decent humans are scarce in a world of competition, profits, fraud and greed. Ultimately all of them profit immensely. Almost nobody involved in the creation of the Collateralized Debt Obligation (CDO) bubble is arrested, and ‘Bespoke CDOs’ or ‘Single-tranche CDOs’ are soon sold again.

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Joris Luyendijk, a Dutch anthropologist and journalist, investigated London’s financial center: The City. From September 2011 until October 2013 he wrote about his findings for the Guardian and in 2015 his book Swimming with Sharks was published . He concludes that nothing has changed since 2008.

Care ethicist Fiona Robinson interprets the worldwide ongoing financial and economic crisis as the failure of liberal internationalism (After liberalism in world politics? Towards an international political theory; 2010). She considers what might replace liberalism when it ends. She proposes a political theory of care that emphasizes an ontology of relationality and interdependence. A global political economy, based on international theory of care, can in her view challenge the liberal global justice industry that has shown to be unreliable. In 2013 Joan Tronto analyses the changing meaning of ‘home’. Home is no longer thought as a grounded and concrete way to start thinking about human life. In the last decades the meaning of home has shifted from a safe private place to live to an important and profitable investment. She refers to former president George W. Bush who advocated ‘an ownership society’. People were encouraged to calculate, get easy money and live in their homes ‘as places for speculation’ (Caring democracy; 2013). The crisis of 2008 increased the number of homeless citizens, caused poverty, and a rise of unemployment. This crisis and its severe effects is one of the arguments of Tronto that shows the need for a democratic care revolution. The Big Short contributes to a deeper understanding of the complexity of the financial world and aims, the dispositions of people involved, their ‘victims’ and political and economical entanglement.

Trailor The Big Short

About the author: Jeannet van de Kamp

Jeannet van de Kamp

Jeannet van de Kamp (1957) has master’s degrees in both Theology and Ethics of Care and is currently a PhD-candidate at the VU-University of Amsterdam. In her thesis she examines, from a care-ethical perspective, how citizen-patients are seen in the context of the upcoming experience economy. More specifically, she examines how ‘patient-experience-central’ market models deal with the concepts of vulnerability and suffering. She works as a freelance pastor and as a consultant at the Dutch Center for Consultation and Expertise (CCE), where she advises in complex care practices.