Looking back at all that’s happened the past few decades, it seems a monumental task to try and sort out the most important turning points over the past 16 years that led us to the Trump era, but the Great Recession that bridged the Bush and Obama years is easily one of the biggest. While 9/11 and the subsequent War on Terror was the genesis for the particular strains of xenophobia and fear now infecting us, the Great Recession birthed its evil twin; the collapse of trust for most Americans in the stability, competence, and trustworthiness of our institutions and basic norms of economics and governance.
Everything about it- the people who directly lost homes, savings, jobs, and more, the revelation of just how thoroughly corrupt the markets had become and how inadequate our systems of regulation were, the bailouts allowing those most guilty of the crash to walk away swimming in blood money, and beyond- stunk to high heaven. Moreover, it produced twin ripple effects on both sides of the American political spectrum that we are still caught up in. Before it was supercharged by the desire to destroy the first Black President, the Tea Party first came about as opposition within conservative ranks to the direct involvement of President Bush in saving the banks. The results of the radicalization of the GOP from top to bottom this brought about are, unfortunately, obvious for all to see.
And although it has not yet reached the same level in terms of political power, liberals and progressives have been affected just as starkly. The Occupy Wall Street movement changed forever much of the lexicon on the left in discussing economic inequality, and many in my generation became the first to abandon an instinctive opposition to anything branded with that dirty word “socialist,” willing to embrace ideas like those proposed by Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren that the Democratic Party would not have even contemplated addressing a decade ago. And here, too, a strong tendency to inherently distrust and throw shade on anything deemed “establishment” is beginning to build to a destructive extreme.
Because of how important it is to bear in mind how the Recession is still not just affecting our economy, but even how we think about politics and society, in this month’s edition of Films for the Trump Years I suggest revisiting The Big Short, Adam McKay’s Oscar-winning masterpiece from 2015. Based on the book by the same by Michael Lewis, one of today’s best non-fiction writers, it details how handful of finance expert with various backgrounds caught wind of the fact that the entire system propping up the housing and loans market was fraudulent. With so many bad loans underwriting much of the American and global economy, it was not a question of if the system would crash, but when, and how badly.
What makes their stories so intriguing, complex, and interesting, is that none of these people are “good guys” in many senses of the word. In their own way, they are just as greedy and opportunistic as those they are angry at for defrauding the public, because while they do try to raise at least a few alarm bells about what they find, they still don’t hesitate to profit off the crash when the opportunity arises.
What makes this movie a particular must-see, though, is how it uses its soundtrack, rapid-style editing, and fourth-wall breaks to not just tell a compelling story in a powerfully effective (which it does), but to also serve as a two-hour, Economics for Dummies Crash Course. If you feel like you are hopelessly lost and unable to understand the many technical terms and ideas used in the industry, the movie reminds you that that is exactly the point- skullduggery like this is possible because its shrouded in such boring-sounding jargon, most people simply can’t muster the energy to pay much more than cursory attention to it all.
And therein lies the unfortunately all-too-cyclical nature of human greed and the systematic crashes it produces. The movie pulls no punches at all in reminding the viewer just how cuttingly and awfully unfair it was that working people were ruined while the rich who made the crash were not punished in any meaningful way, and in revealing how a similar crash could easily just be a few more shorts away.
Like with most of the movies I select for this series, The Big Short is a film that calls for vigilance. We can’t prevent every tragedy, but the more we resolve to work every day to open and re-open our eyes, and to educate ourselves about the world we live and the parts we play in whether we like it or no, the better our chances are of avoiding the next disaster.
So stay vigilant. Stay woke. And when you smell something, don’t ever hesitate to say something.
Previously on Films for the Trump Years:
Part 1- Selma
Part 2- Good Night, and Good Luck
Part 3- 13th
Part 4- Get Out
Part 5- Chasing Ice/Chasing Coral