The Risky Moral Gambit of 'The Big Short'

It pays off.
The Risky Moral Gambit of 'The Big Short'
Image: Paramount Pictures
Ryan Gosling in 'The Big Short'

Making movies about high finance is as fraught as making movies about war. Everything depends on how you tell the story. Do you make a straight-ahead drama? Or tap into tragedy? Do you paint it as high farce, or just go for a swaggering thrill ride? Your answer tells us a lot about why you made the movie in the first place.

From Wall Street (1987) to Margin Call (2011), from American Psycho (2000) to, of course, Wolf of Wall Street (2013), filmmakers' answers to that question have ranged all over the map. And that variation makes sense, because finance is tricky territory. Like a war zone, Wall Street culture is steeped in machismo, in hostility, in faking out your enemy, in huge personalities, in adrenaline and attacks and profanity and incomprehensible losses. The stakes are astronomical. People's lives aren't (usually) at risk, but people's livelihoods certainly are. The thrills of the trading floor are correspondingly addictive, and the resulting dopamine high can be ethically dubious in the same way dramatized in The Hurt Locker; it's an open secret that plenty of bankers spend their free time skydiving or base jumping or (more probably) drinking and chasing a substance high.

The added wrench in modern banking is that it combines the culture and bombastic rhetoric of war with financial instruments that can only be described as vehicles for insanely high stakes gambling. At 21, as a new business analyst hire at one of the biggest Wall Street firms in 2005, I encountered concepts like CDOs and credit default swaps for the first time, and even with my dim grasp of finance, I felt like all this betting against the market had to be something like poker. I asked someone who'd been in the business ...

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May
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