In The Ring: The Big Short

In All, Movies by David

Welcome one and all to the first edition of In The Ring, where instead of fists participants use the written word to argue their opponent into submission. Two people enter, and only one leaves… Okay, both leave, but one of them is much more embarrassed than the other. In this edition, we take a look at Oscar frontrunner The Big Short, and ask the question: Are the film’s main characters intentionally awful or not?

So for the tens of people reading, and the hundreds more that still could, are you ready? Then LET’S GET READY TO ARGUUUUUUUE!


David: Welcome one and all to the greatest spectacle on earth: competitive arguing. Not for the faint of heart, this sport is the most dangerous form of discourse: a one-on-one battle with only your wit and arguments to lean on in the Kraken Sports Arena (formerly Kraken Arts and Crafts Center, formerly Kraken Secondary Gall Bladder). Many have buckled under the pressure, but tonight we have a fearsome fight between two titans in the sport. In the Green Tentacle Corner, we have the queen of keeping it real and the breaker of gender paradigms, master wielder of both the pen and the sword, the one, the only… Amy Atomika! In the Other Green Tentacle corner, we have the keeper of the holy grammar and the master of bats, a man who never met a word he couldn’t pun, here is… Josh Kyu Saiewitz! I’m your color commentator, David Robertson, bringing you all the insights for the action plus an epic debate soundtrack! Alongside me now is the Kraken himself. He never says much, but his monstrous wisdom judges us all. But you didn’t come here for me, so let’s get moving to opening statements.

OPENING STATEMENTS: GO!

Amy:

First off, let me say how stoked I am for this column. I love a good exchange of opinions, and there’s not really anyone I know I’d rather argue about movies with than Kyu. We come at things from very different perspectives sometimes, and wouldn’t change it for anything. Sometimes, though, we just butt heads, and even that’s fun. The guy’s a mensch.

Okay, to the topic at hand. How important is likability in your film’s protagonists? I don’t think there’s a blanket binary value that’s the right answer here, but in the macro sense, yes, I think it’s really important to have a primary character or characters who the audience can to root for. The lynchpin of narrative storytelling is the engagement of those watching, so if you are apathetic or loathe toward the outcomes or experiences of your hero, then you’re probably going to be bored with your experience. Bored is bad.

That’s not to say that your hero has to be a Mary Sue, either. The condition of being an engaging protagonist isn’t the same thing as having a protagonist who is ultra-positive and capable. In fact, having a protagonist that is flawed can enhance audience engagement if those flaws are relatable to the audience and portrayed realistically. If your hero is a woman whose central conflict is how her social anxiety affects her relationships, people in the audience can relate to that; conversely, if your protagonist is an acrobat whose conflict is her struggle with her religious beliefs in which she worships LEGO sculptures of Mark Twain, well, that’s going to have to be a damn well-writ script to pull that off.

So let’s look at our focus movie here, The Big Short. There’s a strange juxtaposition I found while watching — the lead characters are all charming, ambitious, good-natured, intelligent men who suss out the endemic greed and corruption in the Wall Street financial and regulatory institutions and exploit this to their advantage. Spoiler alert: They win, and become ultra-mega-stupid-rich, proving all the haters wrong while all the stuffed-shirts in the old guard sit there and eat boiled goose. On its surface, this sounds like a classic underdog story, and the movie plays it like one; Christian Bale is the brilliant shut-in forced to prove his distrustful boss wrong, Steve Carell is the emotionally-damaged family man with a cause, and Brad Pitt’s underlings are out to go from small time to the bigs in the world of high stakes finance. These all sound like classic set-ups for the little guy to stick to the man. It’s David vs. Goliath. Rocky vs. Apollo. Ant-Man vs… uh… people who are not ant-sized.

Looking more closely, the movie tells us things in the margins that it doesn’t really want the audience to dwell on — mainly, that our barnstorming “heroes” are at the very least very privileged people before the events in the film started, and in some cases already extremely weathly. They’re all fund managers, and worth millions before they monetize their mortgage scheme, including the two young guys mentored by Pitt’s character. So who or what are we supposed to be rooting for?

These are not crusaders. These are opportunists, and they’re essentially buying up all the plots in the graveyard to flip them for profit. Given how this film casts these guys in the hero’s light, my question to this end is trying to figure out if director Adam McKay is being subversive or not. The tone and narrative beats suggest we’re watching a group of heroes, but the facts and the textual elements fly directly in the face of that.

David: Atomika opens with the ‘happy to be here and my opponent is an honorable man’ gambit, a bold move that could cause Kyu to lower his guard. Then she opens up with a flurry of attacks against the main characters in The Big Short while also eliminating some low blow counterarguments early. It’s a strong opening salvo. How will Kyu respond?

Kyu:

It’s probably impossible for anyone who knows the basic story of the 2008 economic crash not to be angry with the four main protagonists of Adam McKay’s The Big Short. The film is based (presumably to a fairly high degree of accuracy) on real individuals who discovered before almost anyone else that the whole financial system was dangerously over-leveraged and headed for a collapse. Did they share this information? Was their goal to warn the world of the impending disaster? No, the four main protagonist groups in this story all have the same idea: to get rich off this golden opportunity by betting on catastrophe. That this handful of people–by anyone’s standards fairly well off to begin with–allowed something so awful to happen to so many just for the sake of making more money. It’s enraging! How dare they? Why aren’t these people in prison, when they bear the moral responsibility for the economic collapse?

Wait–am I still talking about the main characters? Because it sounds like I’m really talking about everyone on Wall Street who contributed to the collapse. That’s the genius of The Big Short. It involves you in a story about four guys who tried to beat a system instead of saving it, makes you cheer for them and then hate them more than a little; but it does so to make you realize who you should really be upset with, and why. Like the “heroes” of this film, the people whose selfish actions resulted in the Great Recession knew there were systemic issues. Wall Streeters knew in some cases they were committing acts tantamount to fraud, knew there were risks, and still let greed drive them over the cliff (but not before bailing out of the car with one hand on the ripcord of their golden parachutes). The arc of the film takes us and the characters from enthusiastic enjoyment of a caper-like situation–the prospect of all the money to be made at the expense of an ignorant system, so delicious–to the eventual horrifying realization of what they’ve really done and why.

The way the film plays with audience identification is central to its message. Films like this and Scorsese’s The Wolf of Wall Street ultimately point their fingers not only at the big banks but also at the public, those temporarily embarrassed millionaires who almost literally fetishize the accumulation and display of wealth and power through works of so-called lifestyle porn like 50 Shades of Grey or Sex and the City. Here in The Big Short it’s that high-adrenaline, high-stakes feeling of the gambler’s sure bet–the fantasy of being smarter than everybody else and getting an absurd reward for it. In another context, a heist movie perhaps, that feeling would be harmless escapism. But in The Big Short it’s laid bare as the reason we collectively allowed the crash, or at least the circumstances that led to it: everybody dreams of being the guys getting rich, so nobody wants to look too hard at what those guys are doing (or tax them too high, or punish them too harshly). Without the bait and switch of the nuanced way the film looks at its own protagonists, it would be just another slick, glossy attempt to overexplain our national overdue homework, Selina Gomez cameos all the way through. Instead it’s THE film about the crash, the one that truly captures and inspires the emotions we should be feeling about what happened.

Using textual evidence and rhetorical skill, I will prove that this is both intentional and vital to the film’s narrative and impact. And hopefully this will be a fun, friendly (albeit I’m sure contentious) debate! I love a good argument and Amy is a worthy opponent for whom I have nothing but respect, even when she is being so very wrong.

David: Ohh! Kyu counters with his patented bait and switch, redirecting the potential anger at the main characters towards the real villains: everyone else in Wall Street. Appealing to everyone’s memory of the economic crash, and using a wall of eloquence to form a defense before returning a shot of flattery right at his opponent. This is a strong counter. Isn’t that right, Mr. Kraken?

You all may think that reply was mere silence, but I assure you the Kraken just offered a soul crushing insight bursting my own existential bubble. I, uh, I need a minute. Meanwhile, the crowd is going wild! Or would be, if anyone knew we were trapped in the phantasmagorical nightmare that is this bestial prison. Oh God, we’re never getting out of here! We’re never… um. *cough*

Now that the warm ups are out of the way, the first bell goes off, and our two competitors step back into the flat circle. Let’s continue the action as I pick up the pieces of my broken soul.

ROUND ONE: FIGHT!

Amy:

I’m going to sort through Kyu’s maelstrom of eloquence and point out that, hey, maybe the finger pointing back at our protagonists here is too nuanced, and that’s a bad thing if your aim as director is to arouse an awakening in your audience of their own culpability in the unfolding tragedy before them. Audiences don’t tend to engage vicariously with people who they wouldn’t take pride with associating themselves with, so this kind of trick can be extremely difficult to pull off, and maybe more so when your subject is a dramatic feature instead of a comedy.

Which is interesting here specifically because the director is Adam McKay, notable for directing and writing big audience-pleasing hits like Step Brothers, Ant-Man, The Other Guys, and Anchorman, as well as being the co-founder of internet comedy sensation Funny Or Die with frequent collaborator Will Ferrell. I also think that McKay wrote and directed what is possibly the greatest the-joke’s-on-you comedy of all time, Talladega Nights. What’s so great about that film is that it dresses everything up in the colors of NASCAR culture, from the real-life brand placement to cameos from famous drivers, and uses the broad comedy of Ferrell, John C. Reilly, and Sacha Baron Cohen as camouflage to make a lot of pointed jabs at the ridiculous (and sometimes ugly) hallmarks of that particular strain of fandom. It’s a comedy that works differently depending on how you feel about the subject matter; if you’re a NASCAR motorhead, it’s a loving paean to your favorite past-time, and if you think it represents a lot of the wrong in American culture, well, you might consider it a subversive satire that calls out those who take it at face value. It’s brilliant, in its own way.

Can you do that with a drama, though? More specifically, can you do that when your movie has an Important Message™? I don’t know. I don’t like to say that anything can’t be done in cinema, but I think there’s a lot of inherent obstacles to getting that message across. If your characters are easy to spot as horrible assholes it takes all the wind out of the narrative sails, because who cares what happens to a horrible asshole? Conversely, what if your characters come across as too likable and personable, despite being horrible assholes? It can be too easy for the audience to downplay or forgive their failings. My leaning here is that it takes a substantial amount of nefariousness dickery to undo an audience’s engagement with a character they’ve spent the last hour or so liking, so when it’s time to ramp up the gut-punch that recalibrates the protagonist into something more morally ambiguous while also pointing out the audience’s own culpability, it’s dissonant and jarring, and I’m not sure you can get this turnaround to work with just a mild bit of nuance. And that is to say, I don’t think Adam McKay quite pulled that off here with The Big Short.

David: Atomika comes out strong with a nuanced argument about nuance, and an excellent summary of director Adam McKay’s prior film work. If you’re bringing up Talladega Nights, you have definitely come to play. This is a strong flurry of sharply worded blows. Can Kyu launch a counter attack?

Kyu:

It’s true that it can be difficult to reach audiences with this kind of trick–it’s much easier to forge audience identification than it is to break it. Many filmmakers have run into this issue on many different movies, from Fight Club to Scarface to The Wolf of Wall Street. Too often the movie’s fanbase simply doesn’t get it. I’m not sure, however, that that invalidates the idea. Enough people do get the truth of these movies, do understand their implicit critiques of their central characters. So it may still be worthwhile to take this tack.

That said, The Big Short plays a subtle variation on this thematic structure, a variation I like call “pulling a Munich,” after Spielberg’s 2005 masterpiece. In that film, Spielberg looks at the Israeli/Palestinian conflict through the lens of an espionage thriller. Over the course of a story about a team of Israeli assassins seeking clandestine revenge for the 1972 Munich Olympics massacre, the film gradually turns the situation into a metaphor for itself, and the film’s “hero” comes to embody the traumatized, paranoid, despairing emotional state that led his country to send him out on this mission in the first place. It’s a story of disillusionment: through careful orchestration of setbacks and Pyrrhic victories, the film lets the narrative engine it had built at the beginning (a drive for vengeance combined with the compelling pragmatic challenges of accomplishing it) simply run out of gas, until along with our protagonist, we question the value of the entire enterprise. (Readers, I don’t have space here to go into Munich at depth, but that movie has layers upon layers; I didn’t even touch on the parallels between Israel in this film and America after 9/11. Go check it out, and remember a time when Spielberg still made great movies.)

The Big Short tries and I believe achieves the same kind of disillusionment arc with its characters. The thrust is not, “These guys are likable until they turn into assholes,” but rather that we realize that the asshole side of these likable people is reflected a thousandfold in the financial industry. After the film’s first half engages us in this high-stakes, cheer-worthy caper film via slick, entertaining filmmaking and strong comedic performances, its second half is a gradual revelation for both us and the characters of the ways in which their behavior is, while exciting on an individual level, horrifically destructive and shameful on a societal level. All of this film’s protagonists achieve exactly what they set out to do: they get rich by being smart. But it’s a case of billion wise, trillion foolish. By the time they get their money, each (except for Gosling’s character) have acquired a second goal, preventing or at least warning about the impending financial apocalypse, and that goal is frustrated. Steve Carrell says it most explicitly, when at the end of the movie he questions whether he’s any different from the people who brought down the economy. But all of them end up disillusioned with a system they thought was, if temporarily troubled, fundamentally honest. The film features an extended discussion on whether the cause of the collapse was stupidity or fraud, but the root cause of both is greed, a drive the film’s ending hammers in a deeply affecting orchestration of protagonist frustration and despair cross-cut with haunting images of the collapse. One of my favorite throw-away images in a film filled with tossed-off, elegantly meaningful moments: two of the main characters wander through a shut-down financial institution, a vast space of empty desks, and find a “house of cards”-like tower of empty Red Bull cans. That image, just on the edge of a frame, encapsulates so much of the film’s message about a precarious industry built on artificial success (while also nodding toward the social dynamics of the industry, which rewards terrible labor practices and employee attitudes in the pursuit of money). It’s arguable whether the film succeeds in pointing the finger back at its audience (and I’m sure we’ll have that argument), but it definitely succeeds in curdling our initial excitement for these characters into rage at the system that shares their greed.

David: Oh my, Kyu used the Munich defense. A strong defense for any cinephile wishing to bring up movies that slowly turn audience expectations and rooting interests in the first half of the movie against them in the devastating second half of the film. It is a power move, and shows Kyu has done his homework. I remember when I last “pulled a Munich,” it was ten years ago and– what’s that, Mr. Kraken? Get back to the damn fight? Yes sir, right away. Please don’t leave me a broken pile of remorse, guilt, and regret. I don’t need to relive Munich to admire it. Uh, so far things are pretty even. Will that continue as the next round commences?

ROUND TWO: CONTINUE FIGHTING, ONLY MORE SO

Amy:

Addressing your first paragraph, yes, I agree with you completely that many people are clued in to the dichotomy on display, but in that I still think two important issues are unresolved: the first being, “Is this actually authorial intent or just the pareidolia of wary deconstructionists?” and the second, “If it’s the former, what good is being served by preaching to the much smaller margin of scholarly film watchers, which I feel might as well be ‘the choir?'” So perhaps I agree with your assertion that this phenomenon doesn’t go wholly missed, but I may disagree with the idea that “enough people do get the truth.” I mean, just look at your list of examples. Scarface alone has a main character who is fairly irredeemable–uneducated, self-obsessed, superficial, irrational, driven by artifice–and in the end he winds up dead basically as a matter of inevitability. Tony Montana, though, is strangely one of pop culture’s most enduring icons and the paragon of the virtues espoused by certain subcultures. I find myself agreeing with you, nevertheless, that the idea of the self-aware/audience-flagellating film itself isn’t invalid (mostly because I believe cinema is an endless world of possibility and wizard magic), but I’m struggling to come up with a good example that really nailed the trick of arousing a guilty awaking in an audience that only moments before it had invited them to indulge.

I agree Munich, though, might be one of the best answers to that search. It’s a film I had a hard time watching when I was younger, largely because there is such a strong tonal and operational shift halfway through, and while subsequent rewatches have only made that shift more academically exciting to me, certain parts of the film have now become the harder parts to sit through; maybe that’s the result of 10 years worth of my watching the Middle East devour itself exactly like Munich warned about. The scene where the young female spy is dispassionately assassinated in her home still makes me ill even thinking about it just now.

However, I think one of the things Munich does to pull this emphatic throughline reversal more successfully than The Big Short is how early the point in the running time is where the turnaround starts. The “heroes” of The Big Short don’t start to realize the level of their own greed and what they’ve really done until much closer to the very end, and I’m not really sure Christian Bale’s character ever does–his arc seems to be victoriously completed when he removes himself from the wearying institutions of greed that questioned his genius. Brad Pitt’s character I find the strangest, since it seems like he has the most conscientious awareness and disgust for what is actually going on, yet uses his considerable influence and talents to enable his proteges’ aims at striking it uber-mega-filthy rich. Yes, he’s the one that in the closing moments of the film half-heartedly chastises his young apprentices, but by that point, so what? It’s like he’s rubbing their face in the mess they’ve made, but instead of a piss-stain on the rug it’s an unfathomably large amount of cash, and that just doesn’t play nearly the same. With Spielberg’s film, you get to slowly watch all the ideals you rooted for in the first half sour and disgust you, and by the last few shots you feel physically ill and complicit. Which was the point! And that’s powerful! I don’t think McKay’s film makes that happen.

(Aside: I’m not really going into it with any depth here because it has more to do with the bastardization of the source text than the movie itself, but I could go on for hours regarding how the really-shitty-yet-perplexingly-beloved Lonesome Dove miniseries totally misses everything the book was about and turned all its many criticisms of Romanticism for the American West into a loving paean to the very same. The whole thing is a huge microcosm of the dissonance in American conservatism. It’s really fascinating.)

David: Atomika laughs at Kyu’s response with a simple “I know Munich, and Senator, The Big Short is no Munich” mic drop. And tossing paradoleia into an argument? She is not fooling around. For every Munich there is are ten Scarfaces or The Godfathers which are never able to fully turn the audience against their protagonists. Of course those two films made up for that in other ways, but does The Big Short? Now, though, Amy is starting to add in an array of specific character references that even my co-host the all-seeing Kraken was not expecting yet. Will Kyu let Atomika use his own Munich reference against him?

Kyu:

I think the answer to all your concerns lies in The Big Short‘s subject matter. This isn’t Munich, where many viewers are ignorant of the specific history and divided on the political metaphor; it’s not Fight Club, which indulges an anti-consumerist fantasy before attempting (somewhat ineffectually) to subvert it; it’s not one of the many rise-and-fall gangster films, where the fall is neither assured nor anticipated for most of the running time. It’s James Cameron’s Titanic: whether or not we think the main characters are going to achieve their goals, we know they’re right about where this ship is headed. It would be impossible for just about anybody to watch this movie not knowing that the protagonists are fundamentally correct about the economy’s prospects, because everybody remembers the crash and everybody felt (and many are still feeling) the recession that followed. So although it takes until the film’s third act for the Jenga tower to actually fall, we know how that game always ends, and that tension allows the film to draw in an increasing sense of apprehension that corrupts the feel-good caper story more slowly than the strict act structure might indicate. I suspect many viewers get “ahead” of the film in terms of anticipating some kind of thematic turn-around, and that helps them understand it when it happens.

For anyone who doesn’t get there early, the movie has you covered. This is a film whose mission statement is, “We will make this complicated story comprehensible to the public,” and it employs a wide variety of clever ideas, cinematic tricks, and careful metaphors in order to do so, from celebrity cameos to comedically exaggerated examples (like when one stripper with a half-dozen homes stands in for many homeowners who were individually over-leveraged). It’s not any less subtle in delivering the film’s morals. When the story’s chickens come home to roost, they pretty much shit an egg on your head. Each main character makes very plain statements regarding how they now view the financial system and decide whether they will still participate in it. Steve Carrell says out loud that he’s become like the very people he railed against. Christian Bale’s email resignation emphasizes his honesty as he withdraws from a system that lied to him. Paragon of virtue Brad Pitt (basically playing Brad Pitt) points out that he’s been telling his eager proteges why he hates the industry all along, and that their greed stopped them from hearing it. Gosling’s slimy dealmaker gleefully counts his money as he tell us he doesn’t care what happened so long as he got paid. This is not a film that pulls its punches, and its characters do not end up in a place of ambiguity. It’s not Munich, which mourns both sides, or Fight Club, which ends with beautiful explosions and a teasing touch of Durden, or a gangster movie whose anti-crime message is perfunctory at best. It’s Titanic: whatever the reasons, the audience is damned sure everyone ended up underwater.

David: Snap! Kyu’s Munich reference was pure rope-a-doped, as he never intended to say that the The Big Short was like Munich, but instead used Munich to bring up what makes The Big Short stand out. Just like The Big Short, Kyu is not pulling any punches, and seems to be getting into a groove. Can Atomika take back control as these wordsmiths step back into the ring?

ROUND THREE: ETCETERA!

Amy:

Again, I’m not so sure the audience does really get how complicit they are in celebrating the characters’ success, and by proxy, perpetuating this ideology of greed at all costs. Maybe they do get it. Maybe this was a really instructive and insightful movie for those who saw it, and this movie definitely strove to be, if nothing else, instructive by helping break down a very complicated and complex failure of an industry that is mostly voodoo and indecipherable jargon to the layperson. I know it certainly played that role well for me, as I’m definitely not a numbers kind of person, and I’m too damn happy to be the person in my house that doesn’t manage our finances. I think with any film of this kind, the moral imperative is at risk of being lost any time the rewards are too enticing. I came out of this film knowing that Bale’s and Pitt’s and Carrell’s characters were made miserable by their experiences in the banking industry, but at the end of all things they’re still smart men who now are worth an unimaginably enormous sum of money. They didn’t lose family members or friends, they didn’t become victims of addiction or dangerous activity, and they didn’t end up dead; they became very, very wealthy men who accomplished exactly what they set out to, and all it cost them was some moral turbulence to thinking about for the rest of their days as they lie about the deck of their yacht. That’s, like, Scarface with a happy ending.

When paired with the film’s closing footnotes that suggest that this breakdown in the industry wasn’t a fluke but rather a symptom of a cycle of failure caused by greed, ignorance, and corruption of the regulating forces, I’m not sure that the message being read by some of the audience is “now go out and be an activist to ensure this doesn’t happen again,” so much as it might be “if you’re smart enough like these guys, you too can be filthy rich by exploiting the system.” To be clear, I agree with you that it doesn’t exactly take too critical an eye to see that the main characters here aren’t to be emulated or lionized; but then again, Tony Montana died young violently in his own home thanks to his own lifestyle and decisions, and look how positively some people see him.

So maybe you can make a movie that makes the audience aware of its bad behavior, successfully. I think your example of Munich is a fantastic one, but for every one of those, you have a movie like Starship Troopers or Sucker Punch where large parts of the crowd mistake being mocked for being pandered to. Maybe I’m too pessimistic, but I’m watching the political news these days showing rallies where people are rooting for open racism and bigotry, and if we can’t rise above those base and corrosive mindsets en masse, how can we expect people to come away with the right take from stories that are morally nebulous and demanding of introspection, like The Big Short?

David: Sensing the tide is turning, Amy changes beats, and comes out with audience interpretation. This shifts the question from what The Big Short intended to what did the audience actually got out of it. Scarface pops up again, as does a Starship Troopers reference, which is a sure fire way to get this color commentator on your side. Mockery and pandering are two sides of the same coin, and does The Big Short risk falling into the same trap that caused Dave Chappelle to leave his hit show? Bringing up the dangers of satire and the current political situation has shifted the terms of this debate. Will that cause Kyu to slip up?

ROUND FOUR: FEAR IS THE MIND KILLER

Kyu:

But those are different people. Trump voters aren’t confused about whether or not he’s a racist jerkbag; they just honestly want and appreciate that. Likewise, I’m sure there are people for whom the personal pursuit of wealth is a virtue that excuses all sins, even the 2008 financial calamity. Other people have different moral preferences, but they don’t necessarily have the right information or the right emotional argument when it comes to a particular issue. Films fall into this trap of audience misidentification when they are unclear–Scarface, for instance, is a movie whose argument is, for all Brian De Palma’s overt posturing (insert “The World Is Yours” statue here), pretty muddled. There’s no sense that the drug trade has actual victims, and it’s possible to come away from the film believing that it’s the tragic story of a guy who wanted it all (and who doesn’t?) and couldn’t hold onto it, as opposed to the actual story of an asshole whose acquisition of money and power allows him to become a bigger asshole until, like a black hole, he collapses under his own weight of assholery. (I admit that in the days of Trump, the story of an asshole self-destructing seems more like a fable than reality.)

But as I said, The Big Short‘s self-appointed mandate is “hit you over the head” clarity. Nobody shows up and shoots the main characters or puts them in jail, but then, nobody did that to the Wall Streeters, either, and that’s part of this film’s anger. I think when it comes to film like this, or The Wolf of Wall Street (whose ending, where protagonist Jordan Belfort gets off virtually scott free, shares this film’s searing, accusatory rage), there are some people who already know, and some people who can’t be told, but some who are swayed in the middle. And it doesn’t take a whole lot of sway to spur meaningful change. At any rate, I firmly believe that it is worth trying–that art can inform and ennoble us, even when no specific piece of art can reach all of us all of the time. I think Lincoln said something about that once.

Let me clarify my argument slightly, though. I think whether The Big Short is trying for audience introspection is arguable–I believe at the very least it’s a message implicit in the film’s structure–but it’s definitely, explicitly arguing that its protagonists share the same corrupting drive as its antagonists. A drive that most people will excoriate, at least in others. Popularized concepts like the 1% and the guilt of Wall Street include the idea of rapacious, destructive greed, and I think it does end up being a powerful statement when The Big Short concludes that its protagonists are people who, at best, recognize that drive in themselves and withdraw from the system that encouraged it. In a way the film holds up that very state of self-awareness as comparative virtue; of the many systemic contributors we meet throughout the movie, our “heroes” are the only ones who end up understanding their own role. Their reward is money, yes, but they already had money; over the course of the film they go from rich to very rich. Their curse is their inability to continue playing the game, now that they know how it’s rigged.

David: Kyu doesn’t let this change of tack affect him as he throws shade at Scarface and Trump supporters before heading back into his lane. The ‘we are supposed to be angry at everyone’ defense is a solid one, and allows him to pivot toward the protagonists garnering sympathy simply from how they react to a tragic situation compared to the rest of the corrupt system. This is why the Kraken never trusted Wall Street, even before the “Kaiju 4 Ka$H” incident of 2009. This time it’s Kyu who has changed the flow of this argument. How will Atomika respond as we enter the next round?

ROUND FIVE: THE BATTLE RAGES ON

Amy:

I think you’re exactly on point in saying the film’s ultimate directive is providing a sense of clarity for what was a very complicated phenomenon that impacted millions of people (and still does!) and still isn’t something most people can elucidate with any sense of authority. I mean, I’ve seen the film and even I still don’t know exactly what happened on a technical level much beyond “the banking industry allowed greed to supersede rational oversight, the regulatory mechanisms were hobbled by free-market factors that shouldn’t exist in that space, and investors cared more about personal gain than the health of the economy and the American people …and then Jenga happened.” Even the fact that I can tell you that speaks volumes to the way McKay streamlined the complexities of what actually took place during this time; I’ve seen Oliver Stone’s Wall Street and its sequel a few times and I still don’t know if it explained anything about either of the market crashes it cashed in on other than “rich dudes are assholes.”

Perhaps that’s the real victory of this film, articulating this messy-yet-terribly-important part of our recent economic past, and getting us all past the easy chants and sound bites from the picket lines of Occupy Wall Street and the Tea Party–who in our lack of understanding could easily be written off as kooks and extremists–to a point where not only are we rightfully angry at the failure of these institutions, but we know better how and where to direct that anger. Going back to the initial argument here, “does the likability of the characters in this movie actually matter for this film to successfully get its message across?” I feel that it’s a failure of the director making that connection with the audience if that message is meant to be, “these guys are assholes and so are you for enabling and/or lionizing them,” as several of them are too charismatic and engaging to root against wholly; though if the message instead reads, “this was a systemic failure and here’s how even good people debased themselves to profit from it,” then yes, absolutely, empathizing with these characters isn’t just helpful, it’s likely requisite to drill that point home. If the audience can connect themselves to these characters and see their flaws for what they are and what they wrought instead of something to gloss over in celebrating rote avarice and reaping vast ends of wealth, then maybe there’s hope for those to be swayed by film’s well-made arguments.

And then again, there’s always people who side with Scarface. Ah, well.

David: Atomika just changed the question of the debate to be message dependent. This changes everything. Have the two of them now been arguing two different things? What is going on?

Kyu:

Unless I misunderstand you here, I agree! Debate over?

David: Wait a second…

Amy:

Yes. I accept your unconditional surrender. :p

Kyu:

Unconditional surrender? You agreed with me!

David: Over?! Never have I seen–

Amy:

It’s over! Cue the fireworks!

David: What is happening?! The debate ended in agreement? But who agreed with who? That’s not how this is supposed to go! Stop dancing, Kraken! Damn you, Katy Perry! As this edition of In the Ring comes to a close, our two competitors are now arguing in extreme agreement. No one seems to know who actually won… Well, anyway, come back for another great debate the next time our contenders find themselves… IN THE RING!