I saw “The Big Short” in movie theaters when it was first released. Like Steve Carell’s character did throughout the movie, I felt my anger, disillusionment and grief rise to almost unbearable levels by the time the final credits rolled. Just before they did, Ryan Gosling’s character summarized the impact and consequences of the big banks’ irresponsible and abusive behavior like this:
“When the dust settled from the collapse, 5 trillion dollars in pension money, real estate value, 401k, savings, and bonds had disappeared. 8 million people lost their jobs, six million lost their homes. And that was just in the USA.”
Needless to say, no one was laughing coming out of the theater. I remember very clearly telling the usher who was standing outside the door, “People are going to be angry coming out of this movie. Oh my god.”
The film is an inside look (and an extremely accurate one) at the bankers who discovered how the shady mortgage practices of the too-big-to-fail banks toppled the economy in 2008. Laughing yet?
That was in December of 2015, just as the presidential primaries were getting ready to start. At the time I couldn’t imagine why anyone who had seen the film wouldn’t be outraged at any candidates who had close connections to Wall Street. Maybe they were, but clearly not enough: Hillary Clinton and her secret quarter-million dollar speeches to Goldman Sachs, et al, nonetheless managed to win against an opponent who seemed like he had seen “The Big Short” sixty years ago and was still pissed off about it.
And shit has gone downhill from there.
But this isn’t about that. This is about intellectual and ethical disconnect from reality. This is about that “privilege” that Clinton’s trolls so ubiquitously accused everyone of who didn’t have “I’m with Her” tattooed on their foreheads.
Like I said, Netflix has “The Big Short” tagged and categorized as a comedy. It is most definitely not a comedy. Are there some occasional laughs? Yeah, but they are of the gallows humor variety, not the oh my god, slap my knee, that’s hilarious variety. The film is an inside look (and an extremely accurate one) at the bankers who discovered how the shady mortgage practices of the too-big-to-fail banks toppled the economy in 2008. It’s also about how they made bets that the economy was going to fail, which makes them anti-heroes of the most amoral kind (some more than others). Laughing yet?
The film is remarkably well written and directed, because otherwise no one would have been able to sit through it. McKay and his co-screenwriter Charles Randolph find clever ways to explain the mind-numbing terms the bankers use for their duplicitous “products” and practices. That helps viewers understand “credit default swaps” and “collateralized debt obligations,” etc., without making them tune out. Nonetheless, no matter how clever, the explanations just make the simmering pot of fury rise to a boil as the entirety of the criminality is revealed.
So why the hell is Netflix tagging this as a comedy?
I have no fucking idea. I was personally ready to punch a banker in the face as I exited the theater.
Using recently abused accusations of Hillary Clinton’s desperate supporters, I can offer some thoughts. Let’s start with disconnect from reality.
Only the financially privileged can afford to laugh uproariously at “The Big Short.” Those people are also the ones who, after this catastrophic election, will go about their lives with little change.
As a Bernie Sanders supporter during the primaries, I was told endlessly that I needed to be “realistic” and “you don’t live in the real world.” Well, let me tell you, I got an extensive look at the real world in “The Big Short” and it has sparked an anger in me that is still burning hot. Pragmatism and incrementalism were the catchwords of the Hillary cronies and paid trolls. In the face of the monumental crimes against American working people that I learned about from this movie, I wanted to pragmatically break up the big banks immediately and without remorse. Honestly, if we had known exactly how the 2008 crash had happened most of us would have demanded nothing incremental; we would have demanded that these fuckers go to prison and the mortgage industry be radically overhauled.
What is evident is that anyone who could overlook a candidate’s close ties with Wall Street was clearly not living “in reality.” Anyone who believes that Wall Street has the good of its customers and the American economy as its priority is living in a fantasy land. End of story.
Another standard attack of the Clintonites was that anyone who voted third party was exercising “white privilege,” “male privilege,” or just some general middle class “privilege.” Well, after watching “The Big Short,” I know what privilege looks like. The real privilege we should be rioting in the streets about is “financial privilege.” This movie was populated almost entirely by white male characters, sure, but the heart of the movie was about all the unseen Americans who were so brutally effected by the near-total collapse of the mortgage industry. At one point, Brad Pitt’s character chastises two hedge fund managers for celebrating that their credit default swaps are going to make them ungodly wealthy:
“You just bet against the American economy,” he tells them. “If we’re right it means people lose homes, jobs, retirement savings, pensions. These aren’t just numbers. For everyone point unemployment goes up, 40,000 people die.”
Only a shallow and short-sighted person would assume the real villain was anything but unrepentant greed and criminal misconduct by the banking industry.
To put it more succinctly, only the financially privileged can afford to laugh uproariously at “The Big Short.” Those people are also the ones who, after this catastrophic election, will go about their lives with little change. They stand to see their taxes cut, their insurance unaffected, their private schools unscathed, their gated communities undisturbed, their investments less regulated, and their families safely inoculated from exposure to the world of poverty, stress and injustice that surrounds them on all sides.
That the category managers at Netflix think this is anything to laugh at is unfathomably cold-hearted. Then again, Netflix CEO Reed Hastings was a huge donor to the Clinton campaign, raising over $100,000 for her campaign; and corporations generally reflect the values of their CEOs. “The Big Short” casts a very poor light on corporate-funded neoliberals such as Clinton, particularly now that their tepid efforts at courting working class voters ended so disastrously.
It’s worth noting that Netflix’s tagging system that determines categories for films and t.v. shows is done by outside contractors supervised by in-house management. It’s not a high-paying job to tag their programs. In this case, however, you have to wonder just who got the assignment for categorizing “The Big Short.” Maybe, recognizing the political influence the film would so obviously have, Mr. Hastings had his friends and neighbors do the task this time. I can’t imagine any other scenario in which anyone would find anything but occasional gallows humor in the film.
Yet, someone somewhere got a laugh.
I can’t. I just can’t.