The Big Short is a choppy, entertaining, and frustrating movie all at once, but its most distinguishing feature is what it says about morality: that is, the lack thereof in the financial system of the USA. Based on the best-selling book by Michael Lewis of the same name, and written and directed by Adam McKay, a comic filmmaker known for Anchorman (2004) and Talladega Nights (2006), The Big Short tells the story of the Great Recession of 2008 through the eyes of a few intrepid traders who saw the financial collapse coming—and made hundreds of millions by betting that the collapse would happen.
In an Oscar-nominated performance, Christian Bale plays an extremely intelligent, extremely introverted doctor-turned-trader who foresees the coming collapse of the housing market and, to the great chagrin of his boss, ‘shorts’ (that is, bets against) the likelihood that millions of Americans will continue to be able to pay their mortgages. A panoply of other players show up in various roles: some (Brad Pitt) are disaffected with the system, some (Ryan Gosling) enthusiastically embrace it, and others (a foul-mouthed, brilliant Steve Carell) are deeply conflicted. But one way or another, they all end up either profiting from the crash, or—like Pitt’s character—helping friends profit from the economic plight of others.
McKay also brings in celebrities for educational purposes, having Margot Robbie in a bubble-bath explain subprime lending, Anthony Bourdain in a restaurant kitchen explain Collateralized Debt Obligations (CDOs) by analogizing them to fish stew, and Selena Gomez (along with the renowned economist Richard Thaler) at a Las Vegas blackjack table explain ‘synthetic CDOs.’ And this is the general tenor of the movie: flashy, tongue-and-cheek, economically esoteric and deadly earnest all at once.
The Big Short succeeds at telling the terrible story of how millions of Americans lost jobs, homes, pensions, and retirement savings in the greatest financial collapse since the Great Depression. Even though the director draws too much attention to himself with ostentatious camera movements, lighting-quick cuts, and far too much use of the close-up (for some reason, nearly the entire movie is shot in close-up, with choppy, handheld camerawork to boot, making for a jittery, dizzying viewing experience), this hard-to-watch film is a must-see movie. It will be remembered as one of the most important—but not one of the best—films of this decade not only on account of its dramatic portrayal of a few of the individuals who were instrumental in causing and profiting from the Great Recession of 2008, but because of what it revealed about the stunning lack of morality, religious-based ethics, and basic human compassion in our economic system.
In a country as religious as the United States (roughly seven-in-ten Americans identify as Christian, according to the latest Pew survey; over eighty percent of Americans identify as religious; and only 3.1% of Americans identify as atheists), it is devastatingly disappointing to see just how little moral compunction the bankers portrayed in The Big Short possess. The Big Short holds up a mirror to the face of our financial system and shows it to be the whited sepulchre of the Gospel of Matthew: a world that is ‘beautiful on the outside, but on the inside is full of dead men’s bones and everything unclean’ (Matthew 23:27). The world of finance is a world of glitzy, high-priced office-buildings on the outside, but on the inside is full of corruption, greed, and economic sin. It is a world where economic utility, crass self-interest, and simple greed have replaced religious ethics, age-old morality, and simple human compassion. In this economy, the primacy of monetary relations have overtaken moral relations. Cold, heartless economic calculations have overwhelmed intuitive interpersonal kindness. ‘Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites!’ one wants to scream at the Wall Street bankers who stole from the poor to give to the rich, ‘don’t you know that one cannot serve both God and mammon?!’ As Moses L. Pava, Professor of Business Ethics and Dean of the Sy Syms School of Business of Yeshiva University, has observed: Extreme forms of free market ideology, which have permeated the culture of global finance and economics, and have come to dominate, if not monopolize business and political discourse, come perilously close to a kind contemporary and everyday idolatry. (‘Everyday Idolatry and the Ideology of Free Markets,’ Milin Havivin 8 , forthcoming.)
And as the philosopher Kenneth Seeskin has noted: Although many people still think of God as a man on a throne, idolatry in the modern age is generally considered a moral error rather than an intellectual one. If God is the only thing in the universe worthy of worship or adoration, then anyone who becomes obsessed with the desire for wealth, beauty, fame, or power is said to idolize them. From a modern perspective then, idolatry is a universal phenomenon. Almost every country in the world has military parades that glorify power, advertisements that glorify beauty or sexual fulfillment, books that extol wealth or influence, and cults that deify movie stars and sports figures. (No Other Gods: The Modern Struggle Against Idolatry [West Orange, NJ: Behrman House, 1995], cited by Pava in ‘Everyday Idolatry.’)
If McKay’s movie—and Lewis’ book—is a journey into the center of our finance-based economic system, then the terrifying reality they have discovered is that lying in our economy’s heart is pitch-black idolatrous darkness. ‘The horror, the horror!’ we exclaim in our hearts upon viewing a world where the vain seek vanity, the greedy lust after lucre, and the governmental guards, who were supposed to prevent the powerful from abusing the needy, abandoned their posts; some even joined in the fray, fecklessly frolicking in the pursuit of the fleeting goods—and false gods—of this world.
After seeing The Big Short, one will no longer wonder why so many millions of Americans have flocked to the upstart, rebellious campaigns of Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders this election season. The sense of anger that so many of us have against those who cost us jobs, homes, pensions, savings, and our belief in the viability of the American dream is real. But the cure for our broken country and corrupted economy isn’t just to stage a political revolution or build a wall—what first and foremost must happen is a restoration of ethics, morality, and basic human compassion into the heart of our economy and into the hearts of every banker and financier, every woman and man: ‘And you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength. And You shall love your neighbor as yourself. There is no other commandment greater than these’ (Matthew 12:30-31). If we can accomplish this, the day will soon come when we can all proclaim loud and clear: ‘Mistah Corrupt financier—he dead.’