Film Review: The Big Short

 The notion of history as constituted and problematic is hardly news to anyone familiar with current debates in criticism, but it needs to be stressed. For to talk about the failures and triumphs, the strengths and weaknesses and the very possibilities of history on film, it is necessary to pull back the camera from a two-shot in which we see history on film and history on the page standing like opponents in a boxing ring. It is time to create a new frame, one which includes the larger realm of past and present in which both sorts of history are located and to which both refer. Seen this way, the question cannot be, Does the historical film convey facts or make arguments as well as written history? Rather, the appropriate questions are: What sort of historical world does each film construct and how does it construct that world? How can we make judgments about that construction? How and what does that historical construction mean to us? After these three questions are answered, we may wish to ask a fourth: How does the historical world on the screen relate to written history?
Rosenstone, Robert A. “The Historical Film as Real History.” Filmhistoria Online 1. (1995): 5–23. Print.
The Hollywood historical film is a genre fraught with arguments about validity and realism. Film critics are quick to highlight the unsubtle emotionalism of these films, and audiences are quick to either judge the film based on their view of history, or history based on their reception of the film. A great recent example of this is Aaron Sorkin and Danny Boyle’s Steve Jobs and their portrayal of the man behind Apple, which has sparked many a heated discussion about the true Steve Jobs. Every year, such conversations are inevitable. Last year I remember Selma dominated that arena, and the year prior, it was Captain Phillips and perhaps 12 Years a Slave.  This year, however, we have a mainstream historical film that has tackled its subject with a cheeky acknowledgement of the filmmaker’s position in constructing a particular narrative. This film, The Big Short, happily reminds its audience that its historical world is artificially constructed by the director and even goes as far as to point out to the audience some of the absurd aesthetic choices that have nothing to do with reality but make for a better visual story. This self-reflexivity is both delightful and refreshingly honest. 
In addition, the filmmakers decided to tackle some pretty complex economic concepts in the film, asking the audience to try to understand these concepts rather than assuming the audience incapable. Here again the filmmakers were innovative and self-reflexive, inserting random cut-aways of completely unrelated celebrities like Selena Gomez and Anthony Bourdain explaining the economics with real life examples. The presence of these celebrities seems absurd, but it cleverly speaks to our society’s tendency to take life advice from famous strangers while simultaneously presenting these individuals as not just pretty faces or dynamic TV personalities. 

Director Adam McKay’s attempts to tell a historical film self-reflexively really made me want to love The Big Short, but at the end of the day, I found that the film still fell into the trap of most unsatisfying Hollywood historical films. The result was a film with merely the facade of addressing some of the crucial questions that Robert Rosenstone raised in the quote above. In his article, Rosenstone also reminds us that “Films want to make us think they are reality. Yet the reality we see on the screen is neither inevitable nor somehow natural to the camera, but a vision creatively constructed out of bits and pieces of images taken from the surface of a world.” He goes on to identify six traits of a mainstream historical film that contribute to problematic portrayals of history:

1.The mainstream film tells history as a story, a tale with a beginning, middle, and an end.
2. Film insists on history as the story of individuals.
3. Film offers us history as the story of a closed, completed, and simple past. It provides no alternative possibilities to what we see happening on the screen, admits of no doubts, and promotes each historical assertion with the same degree of confidence.
4. Film emotionalizes, personalizes, and dramatizes history. Through actors and historical witnesses, it gives us history as triumph, anguish, joy, despair, adventure, suffering, and heroism.
5. Film shows history as process. The world on the screen brings together things that, for analytic or structural purposes, written history often has to split apart. Economics, politics, race, class, and gender all come together in the lives and moments of individuals, groups, and nations.
6. In film, tools, utensils, weapons, and furniture are not items on display or images reproduced on the pages of books, but objects that people use and misuse, objects they depend upon and cherish, objects that can help to define their livelihoods, identities, lives, and destinies. This capability of film slides into what might be called false historicity, or the myth of facticity, a mode on which Hollywood has long depended. This is the mistaken notion that mimesis is all, that history is in fact no more than a «period look,» that things themselves are history, rather than become history because of what they mean to people of a particular time and place.
He then compares those traits to the elements of experimental historical films, which instead embrace a true self-reflexivity and acknowledgement that all historical accounts, whether written or visual, are subjective constructions of our perception of the past. It’s a fascinating article (and I highly recommend you read it in its entirety), but for the purpose of this post, I find some of his traits of the problematic mainstream historical film really helpful in identifying my own frustrations with The Big Short.

  • I’ll begin with Rosenstone’s second point: this is fundamentally a story about four sets of individuals trying to succeed. Their success becomes the vehicle through which we consider the idealistic notion of America’s success . . . well sort of . . . because really our protagonists are betting against America. Their success depends on America’s economic failure. A few of the characters do wrestle somewhat with the ethics of their position, but they are still presented as heroes, which fundamentally supports their questionable actions as an appropriate response to America’s imminent economic fate.
  • No alternative response of how these characters might have responded to the looming housing market crash is presented in the film, leading to Rosenstone’s third point. We are never given any sense of other historical individuals or organizations who may have responded differently, and most importantly, we are never presented the opposing perspective of the Wall Street bankers. We are expected to just buy into the notion that of course Wall Street is greedy and evil, rather than exploring the complex series of poor decisions that lead to the financial crisis of 2008. By this, I am not suggesting that we should absolve Wall Street of blame, but rather I want to highlight that while “good” in this film is portrayed through individuals, “bad” in this film is presented in the form of a vague, abstract system. It is never personified or complicated.
  • This plays into Rosenstone’s fourth point that “film emotionalizes, personalizes, and dramatizes history,” thus simplifying complex narratives into easily grasped emotional arcs with clear heroes and villains. In The Big Short’s case, there is a narrative of the traditional admirable and heroic underdogs versus the powerful corrupt system that underlies the film.
  • Finally, I want to end by returning to Rosenstone’s first point. The Big Short is a tidy film with a clear beginning, middle, and end: We begin with several businessmen and investors who discover an impending housing crash. Most of the film follows their actions to short the American economy and the painful short-term consequences of their risky bet. Then the film ends ( minor spoiler), of course, with our protagonists being vindicated in their prediction, beating the system, receiving a substantial financial reward, and experiencing a satisfying “told-you-so” moment. The final frames of the film are my least favorite.  
    Spoiler to the Ending (Click to read)
Last year, we saw another film that also addressed the corruption of Wall Street but in a very different manner—Martin Scorsese’s controversial Oscar nominee, The Wolf of Wall Street. I had a hard time with this film because I resented being submerged in three hours of senseless gratuity. Now, however, a year later and after having seen The Big Short, I think I finally understand the subtle brilliance of what Scorsese was trying to achieve. Unlike The Big Short, Wolf complicates history by placing the audience in the villain’s point of view. Not only are we forced to engage the villains as individuals, but we are compelled to identify with the bad guys and even perhaps to root for them—to our internal disgust. The Wolf of Wall Street does not allow its audience to distantly and objectively judge those people who are ruining America’s economy, but rather reminds us that we ourselves are not so morally superior.
Was Wolf of Wall Street successful or admirable in its approach? I am still not sure, but I can acknowledge that Scorsese’s directorial choices made for a better, more complex exploration of Wall Street corruption. Do I think The Big Short is a poorly made film? No absolutely not, and I thoroughly enjoyed watching it. However, in my opinion, it was not nearly as interesting or as compelling as it could have been. It was a historical film that presented an uncomplicated history–something that simply does not exist.
The featured image is courtesy of Death to Stock Photo.
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