Humanizing Complacency in The Big Short

Throughout our discussion of The Big Short, we have talked about how Lewis characterizes the bankers who bet against the market in a way that appeals to readers who may feel alienated by all of the heady economic jargon surrounding the details of the housing crisis. The reader can empathize with Steve Eisman’s cynicism after the death of his son, and understand the underdogs Charles Ledley and Jamie Mai and their “garage band” hedge fund. Despite the extensive back stories as well as detailed physical attributes given to the reader by Lewis to make these guys relatable, I could not help but consistently question whether or not their bets indicated complacency towards gross injustice.

I first want to disclose that Lewis does detail that some of the men involved in shorting the housing market did have strong feelings about the shadiness of the subprime mortgage schemes and attempted to go to the press in order to get the word out (example on page 166 of the text). However, I still find myself unpacking if it is morally just to profit off of the collapse of the housing market. I shy away from praising these men for being geniuses, because the idea of making money off of the misfortune of others, even if it was an inevitable misfortune that would happen regardless, irks me deeply. It might also be possible that buying tons of credit default swaps from these banks perpetuated the lending of subprime mortgages and the subsequent devastation of people’s lives.

After having these questions, I wondered if there is a difference between the way complacency is addressed in the book versus director Adam McKay’s 2015 film version. We get significantly more backstory in Lewis’ version versus McKay’s, most likely for the sake of time. However, film as a medium lends visuals that underpin the humanity of these bankers in a way that the text does not. The viewer sees Dr. Michael Burry in the same gross old t-shirt for days on end. Steve Carell’s dorky haircut and incessant cursing as Steve Eisman (“Mark Baum” in the film), is instantly funny and relatable. Literally bringing these characters to life offers a different avenue for the reader to access their thinking. A jarring scene in the film version shows Brad Pitt as Ben Rickert (aka Ben Hockett) reprimanding Ledley and Mai when they get overly excited about the prospect of huge profits. He details “You know what I hate about fucking banking? It reduces people to numbers. Here’s a number: for every 1% unemployment goes up, 40,000 people die.” In this scene, McKay directly addresses complacency as a natural fallibility – remember Ledley and Mai (Geller and Shippley in the film) are already relatable as the anti wall street big whigs. Thus, when they slip into the egregious act of forgetting that their fortune will come at the expense of the literal lives of these “supernumeraries,” their complacency is humanized. They’re just two good guys who got caught up in the excitement.

I don’t think that this humanization of complacency on McKay’s part is something he should be immediately scolded for. There is no evidence in the film that indicates McKay does not at least consider (there could certainly be more) the trickle down affect of the collapse of the market. A brief scene without dialogue that shows a family living out of their car emphasizes this, and it’s also important to note that McKay was also a donor to Bernie Sanders’ campaign. Rather, this scene with Rickert acting as the conscious behind betting for the crisis, seems to serve more as a warning about slipping into complacency when you are in the position to do so. It is humanized, but not normalized. The final scene of the film sums this up best.

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