by Brad Nelson 5/23/16
This is a movie that attempts to tell the story of the housing boom-and-bust in an entertaining and informative way. Remarkably, it mostly succeeds.
First off, I accept that this movie is full of good information about the housing bubble that burst around 2007-2008. My one criticism, which I will not harp on, is that it totally and completely ignores government’s crucial role in creating or incentivizing that bubble. Other than at the end when it mentioned that many of the banks expected that the government would bail them out come what may, there is no mention of government’s involvement.
So do understand that from this standpoint, this is a propaganda film. It’s all about the big, bad capitalists. But even this underrates the often subtle touch of this movie which is supposed to be based on a real insider stories. The conclusion from the best real-life character in the film, Mark Baum (played wonderfully by Steve Carell), is not that the bubble was caused by a bunch of evil people but by a bunch of stupid people.
In fact, the movie does not make this explicit, but it cannot escape your attention if you watch this that the gullibility or unreality bubble preceded and caused the housing bubble. There was a total lack of a desire to connect cause-and-effect. I see this exact same type of bubble in regards to Donald Trump. Whether regarding banking/mortgages or politicians, people often abandon the expectation for anything to make sense.
This movie is about a few people who made a whole lot of money because they “shorted” the home mortgage market. If the housing market went significantly bust (something considered impossible), they would make money. That is, they were a mere handful of people who recognized the unreality (and sometimes, indeed, the outright corruption, but mostly wide-eyed stupidity) of the financial markets as they packages and re-packaged home mortgages as an investment opportunity.
This basic severing of cause-and-effect, of reality from good-time-rock-and-roll delusions, is really the core of this movie. Almost everyone involved wasn’t your typical evil capitalist driven by greed. It was about an expectation that there was no end to making easy money — whether on the back end by packaging and re-packaging portfolios of mortgages or on the front end in buying houses. As much as we might want to see the villains of this bubble being the mean old banks, we shouldn’t forget that a very large portion of those “poor people” who lost their houses were also involved actively in the irrational exuberance of the bubble. One lady in the film had five houses that she had acquired with nothing down.
The film explains some of the technical terms by breaking the fourth wall and doing an aside, usually with celebrities who explain things in non-technical terms. This is effective in some cases. In others, it’s less so. But it is effective at not making your eyes glaze over from a movie that is too technical. You are given a break now and then.
I think Christian Bale is horribly miscast as the socially awkward financial genius. I can see Matt Damon pulling this off far more effectively. But that’s a relative quibble. The clear star of this movie is Steve Carell in his role as Mark Baum. This has got to be the kind of juicy role that actors live for. This movie by no means revolves around his character. But the power of his character anchors what otherwise could have been yet another ho-hum documentary-style film.
Even though these guys were in the midst of this, I’m not sure that they draw the right lessons at the end of the film. You should be at least a little skeptical. One other thing that strongly occurred to me while watching this is how people these days gain so much of their reality from fiction via various forms of entertainment (perhaps this film included). Never forget that many yutes gain their information from comedians or just mere celebrities Again, Donald Trump comes to mind. This movie should be taken with a grain of salt even as I think you do get some real and vital inside information on what went down. But by no means is it the complete story. It might not even show the most important element: government’s involvement.
Those quibbles aside, from a cinematic perspective, this is an interesting movie from start to finish. Well…almost. The first ten minutes or so presented a movie that looked like a bit of a turkey. But stay with it. It gets better.
Brad is editor and chief disorganizer of StubbornThings.
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