Saturday, March 26, 2016

The Big Short

I recently had opportunity to see The Big Short, the 2015 film based on the book of the same name by Michael Lewis. It takes place in the years leading up to the financial crisis of the late 2000s, focusing on a few groups of people that saw the problems developing.
First, the movie is definitely entertaining. The characters are all interesting, and the casting is great. My personal favorite was Christian Bale as Dr. Michael Burry, and I had no complaints about any of the other performances. It starts a bit slowly, but once all the major players have been introduced, there's always something of interest happening. It runs just about 2 hours, and I didn't feel like it dragged out at all.

I consider myself an informed layman when it comes to financial markets in general, and the financial crisis of the late 2000s specifically. Certainly I don't have the depth of understanding that a real insider would, or someone who has studied the subject extensively. But I know about sub-prime mortgages, and credit default swaps, and CDOs, and the general way that the crisis unfolded. So I didn't watch the movie as much to learn what it said about the financial crisis, as I did to see how how it said those things.

As far as explanations goes, I thought the writers did pretty well. Using humorous celebrity cameos to explain bits of financial jargon is a stroke of genius. If you have to figure out a way to get complex and dry information across to the audience, why not make it fun? That shows up in other places, too, such as the Jenga-style tower used to represent bond markets in one meeting. It's still a lot of information to understand if someone were to come in with no clue at all about the subject, but I think they did as well as can be expected with the explanations.

Having said that, there's certainly a lot of complexity about the situation that wasn't included. Do a quick search on "big short fact check" and you'll see a whole lot of people who have written about things the film glosses over, exaggerates, or leaves out entirely. I've read a few of those, and while I don't doubt that they all have their points, it seems to me that they're mostly expecting too much of a movie (or book) that's meant to give the layman both entertainment and understanding. I think the major points that the movie makes are mostly accurate, and trying to explain even more underlying detail would have added only confusion.

When The Big Short ends with some pointed comments about how little has been done to change the system, it certainly makes the viewer think. And that's exactly what you want to see from this kind of film.

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