The Ethics of The Game: How The Big Short Can Teach Us To Appreciate Mockingjay

As a 2008 college graduate who entered adult life in the middle of the country’s downward spiral into recession, I found The Big Short extremely depressing. In its detailed depiction of the machinations of the collapse, it reminded me at every turn of how much misfortune and fear were suffered by regular Americans due to the greed and blindness of the self-declared “best and brightest.” And its sardonic portrayal of how the system righted itself and kept going, without any significant reform, while everyone else suffered, reminded me of the great disappointment of the bailout. Reforms were gutted, while the banks deemed “too big to fail” got rescued with almost no consequences to themselves. Meanwhile, individuals all over the country got evicted. Filed for bankruptcy. Lived in fear.

The Big Short examines a slice of this vast injustice, but from a point of view so narrowly focused that it risks celebrating the exact culture it’s critiquing. Meanwhile, The Hunger Games—seemingly so removed from such pragmatic issues as credit default swaps—presents a luminous alternative to the shortcomings of The Big Short.

Fair warning: I’m going to assume everyone has had a chance to see these movies if they’re going to, and discuss them in full beneath the cut.

thebigshort

By the way, this woman who walks through the background of a shot and knocks on a door probably has like the fourth biggest female role in this movie.

THE BIG SHORT

The Big Short, directed by Adam McKay and starring a cast of heavyweight luminary (male) actors plus a naked Margot Robbie (more on that later), takes us back to the period before the collapse of 2008. Its titles count down to that moment, as represented by the fall of Bear Stearns, which was brought down by the subprime mortgage crisis. Meanwhile, it spins the tale of how a few people who saw the collapse coming created a simmering network of schemes and bets to try to cash in.

Christian Bale plays Michael Burry, a one-eyed genius of sorts who manages a hedge fund and figures out early on that there’s no way for the housing bubble to keep going. Brad Pitt plays Ben Rickert, who advises two newcomers as they enter the market “short on” (betting against) housing. Steve Carell, much heavier than his usual svelte self, plays Mark Baum, a grieving man with a temper problem who manages some sort of fund owned by Morgan Stanley. And Ryan Gosling plays a brash young trader, Jared Vennett, who comes in and convinces Mark Baum to go short on housing. He also provides narration, his smugness tinged with not quite enough irony to make him seem truly “knowing” about how awful everyone else in this movie is. (I only summarize male characters, and this is exactly what this movie wants me to do; you’ll notice that every poster for this movie shows only these four white male faces.)

The_Big_Short_teaser_poster

And don’t miss the phallic symbols that frame each of their faces.

As the bubble grows and grows, Burry, Baum, and Rickert desperately try to get the stock they’ve bet against downgraded so they can begin making money. But at every turn they’re thwarted because Goldman has rigged the entire system so that their bad bets will maintain a high credit rating well beyond the time when it could possibly be justified. Because of this, all of the other players are left in precarious positions where they know that their risky bets are right, but no one around them believes the risk was worth it.

Kelly Konda of We Minored In Film wrote a wonderful review where he pointed out that the heroes of The Big Short aren’t “seeking to speak truth to power,” or to change the corrupt financial system. And this plays out in the movie in a strange way, because while the protagonists both know the “truth” and are facing down against a corrupt power, they aren’t actually heroes. They are just smart people with normal-sized consciences, up against even smarter people with sociopathically small consciences.

Yet because they are the underdogs, even if inside a rarefied system, it’s hard not to sympathize with them—and that’s the reason why I think this film fails to really hit home as either a stirring cry for justice or an effective satire. For example, Steve Carell plays Mark Baum’s frustration with the same fragile humanity that he brought to even more unlikeable characters like Michael Scott. In one excellent scene, Baum and his colleague learn from a ratings agency that Goldman pressures the ratings agencies into giving “A”s to Goldman’s risky holdings. They all know their ratings are bullshit, but they have to play along anyway. The sheer horror on Mark Baum’s face as he realizes how outmatched he actually is—someone who previously thought he could win the game if he was smart enough, only to realize that Goldman had secretly written the rules so that only Goldman could win—is the same horror we feel. How can the audience resist rooting for Mark Baum to win out, to show the great vampire squid that they can’t get away with this?

vampire squid

A vampire squid. Ugly, eh?

The movie does at least make a gesture towards the difference between the likes of Baum and the real victims of the crash. As Vennett declares near the end, all of the bankers went on to profitable lives, mostly in finance. But the one character who has no culpability in this mess is a man, apparently a single father, who lives in one of the soon-to-be-foreclosed houses as a tenant, and has no idea his landlord is in default.  When the Morgan Stanley crew come by to investigate, he begins to have an inkling something is wrong, but they don’t tell him much of anything; later, we see him packing up to leave his home with his daughter.

He is credited only as “Tattooed Renter.” He is also the only person in this movie who is not essentially a villain.

But his plight will never be done true justice by a slick, high-production-value movie like this. The fact is that our main characters all want the same thing, and they are played by likeable guys who are recognized as the “best and brightest” of America’s other most lucrative industry, Hollywood. It’s hard not to root for them; it’s required by the plot structure, in fact. The biggest baddies are the ones on the other end of these deals, the ones who barely appear onscreen, the ones who set up this giant housing bubble. Our guys are just seeing the truth and trying to make a buck from it. How bad is that? It’s not criminal or anything… right?

But it’s obvious, from the film (and to anyone who follows the news), that Goldman could not have destroyed this economy single-handedly. The entire finance industry and the entire shabbily incompetent regulatory system are implicated by the movie, which clearly demonstrates the truth so frequently denied by Reagan and his disciples: If you count only on people betting against each other in the free market to keep bubbles in hand and to keep vast hordes of Americans from losing their jobs and homes, this is what happens. Bubbles get out of hand. And vast hordes of Americans lose their jobs and homes.

tiresias

Blind people have always been prophets in mythology.

At this late stage of American cultural self-awareness, most moviegoers savvy enough to pick The Big Short to watch on a Saturday night already know that the game is rigged to benefit the most powerful. We may know it, but—as this movie also demonstrates — there is still a tendency to admire people who play the game well. When a film is casting Christian Bale and Brad Pitt to play its “truth-seeing” bankers, even if the former is hiding his natural charisma behind awkwardness and a disability (a glass eye, which has obvious Tiresian implications — Tiresias, of course, being the blind prophet who warned Oedipus of a truth even more horrifying than the housing bubble) — when a film does its casting like this, it’s not trying very hard to repulse its audience, is it? Our heroes, the people we truly admire in this country, aren’t the ones who try to stop the financial sector from making money for rich people out of the struggles of the poor; they’re the ones who are better at it. The ones who make it sexy.

Speaking of sexy, I’d like to discuss the other great failing of this film: Jarred interrupts the action several times to explain various concepts behind the housing crisis, and uses famous personalities as props to hold the audience’s attention while he does this. The props are:

  • Margot Robbie, naked in a tub
  • Anthony Bourdain, in his chefin’ outfit
  • The father of behavioral economics, in a suit
  • Selena Gomez, in a sparkly dress

So, to recap, two women who stand onscreen looking pretty while they explain financial concepts, and two men who explain financial concepts while demonstrating skills that they’re known for.

margot

So… THIS happens.

 

The film declares explicitly (via Ryan Gosling), “We’re going to help you understand these concepts by showing you things that will hold your attention.” And by “things that will hold your attention,” they apparently mean sexy ladies, and successful men. The sheer audacity of the (hetero)sexism behind this—both in terms of using naked ladies as props while men appear in the same device in the clothes of their profession, and in so explicitly assuming only straight men were watching this movie—is staggering.

But it shouldn’t be surprising. Capitalism and the patriarchy tend to work hand in hand much of the time, because both are about dominance through power. Just as feminism and anti-capitalism go hand-in-hand, in the sense that both are about dismantling hierarchies of power. That The Big Short was deeply sexist in addition to its extreme ambivalence about the financial system should not surprise us.

And this brings me to The Hunger Games. If The Big Short says, Real Men play the game right, what does The Hunger Games say?

hunger

THE HUNGER GAMES: MOCKINGJAY PART II

The Hunger Games’ last installment, in many externals, is The Big Short’s exact opposite: fantastical instead of nominally nonfictional; female-driven instead of rambunctiously male; saturated with action and violence instead of with jargon and exposition. Most importantly, like The Big Short, it places its hero as an underdog inside a corrupt system. But instead of playing along and complaining about the results, she breaks out of the dichotomy created by the game (win or lose, kill or be killed) and strikes a great blow for pacifism. For the end of the Games.

For the rare reader who needs a background, Jennifer Lawrence plays Katniss Everdeen, the girl who becomes an accidental hero when she volunteers to take her sister’s place in a deadly game enforced by the upper class of her dystopic future society. In Mockingjay Part II, she is under the protection of a rebel group seeking to wage war on the upper classes who live in the upper-class Capitol, wearing velvet robes and fanciful hairdos. (There is an obvious parallel to be drawn between the fantastically rich bankers of the pre-2008 Wall Street, the financial capital of the world, and the fantastically clothed upper crust of the Capitol in the Hunger Games trilogy.) Katniss participates in overthrowing one evil dictator—Snow—but her last act is to turn around and assassinate the leader of the rebel movement, Coin, who has vowed to reinstate the Hunger Games for one last round supposedly meant to punish the dictators of the previous regime.

When  I first read the Hunger Games trilogy, I remember being deeply disappointed. Didn’t Suzanne Collins understand anything about trilogies, I wondered? First you save yourself (as Katniss does in the first book); then you save the people you love (as she does in the second); then you save your whole country from the evil dictator in a final showdown in the third. What a waste, I thought. Katniss doesn’t win at the end. Sure, Snow’s defeated, but for what? And in such a quiet final showdown! And then, the crowning insult, she goes off to raise babies with Peeta! What kind of feminist heroine is this?

But watching the film adaptation so soon after The Big Short, I realized that not winning makes Katniss even more revolutionary. Early in Mockingjay II, Katniss is visibly disturbed by Gale’s willingness to kill as the rebels fight District Two, trying to smoke their enemy out of a giant mountain. As an action heroine, Katniss does sometimes kill in order to survive. But she doesn’t take pleasure in it, and while others are willing to engage in ever more destructive war tactics in order to take down the evil Snow, Katniss shies away from such logic. Her long experience in and out of the Hunger Games itself has taught her that if you have to win the game by becoming like your enemy, you’re not winning. Alone on the rebel side, she has undergone enough suffering and emerged with enough wisdom to understand this. Though Gale thinks he’s on her side — that he is taking down an evil system by coopting its military tactics — in fact, she realizes, he’s perpetuating the larger problem, the problem of war itself. Snow’s regime is just a particularly horrific version of a militaristic society. So what she’s trying to overthrow can’t just be one regime. It has to be the entire system that is founded on military might: every regime that plays the game of war.

We aren’t used to heroes like this, heroes who reject the idea of winning because playing the game is in itself wrong. But I’ve since realized that the action movies from which I’d absorbed my notion of a trilogy’s ideal structure had mostly centered on male protagonists. Heroes venerated by the patriarchy are supposed to grow strong and beat their opponents. But this means that the entire story exists within a value system that is at least partially about valor, strength, power, and yes, violence.

shootingsnow

Katniss agrees to shoot the evil dictator Snow, but at the last moment turns and shoots Coin, a dictator in the making, who has been her ally until this moment.

Katniss breaks out of this structure, rejecting altogether the idea that power and violence are something to seek out. I think she shoots Coin because she isn’t interested in symbolically dominating someone (Snow is already out of power), but in symbolically rejecting the new president, who is poised to merely continue the old oppressive order under a new name. Her choice to raise a family instead isn’t about abdicating female power but is actually an active, profoundly radical, and powerful choice: she’s choosing peace. She’s choosing to end her participation in the war.

As a friend and I were discussing the other day, it’s easier to identify with the message behind the movie now that we’ve seen this year’s presidential race. All we have to do is look around us at the politicians who run our country, who on both sides are in the pockets of powerful interests that, behind the scenes, dominate the vast majority of political decisions that shape Americans’ lives. (And yes, by “powerful interests” I do mean Goldman Sachs.) One look, and you see that the act of trying to win inside a corrupt system is, in itself, a powerful corruptor. If you are willing to step away from the idea of the trilogy being about “a kick-ass girl,” my friend wrote, the idea of “the inevitability of corruption” might be a more satisfying theme. And I completely agree. The corruption here is not only the gross and identifiable corruption of running a “hunger games” where you force children to kill each other, but also the more insidious corruption of believing, like Gale, that the ends justify the means, no matter how violent or inhuman the means might be.

War and finance are not dissimilar (quite the reverse; they actually feed off of each other). Each is a system where one person’s win is another person’s loss; and each is predicated on the people inside it never looking up, outside the bubble, and deciding to exercise their right of refusal. Unlike Mark Baum and Jared Vennett, Bartleby put down his pen and said he would prefer not to continue his job as a copier on Wall Street in a radical act of refusal. Equally radical is the heroine Katniss, laying down her bow.

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3 Comments

  1. My only reservation about your essay is the way that it takes The Big Short to task for its sexism. It is fair point, and it further establishes the difference between the politics of The Big Short and the politics of Mockingjay Part 2. You could have also mentioned that, if I recall correctly, the only female victim of the housing crisis we meet is a stripper giving a lapdance to Carell’s character. Choices like that one as well as the use of Robbie/Gomez as distracting sex objects were things which Adam McKay actively added to the story. So it’s fair game to go after him for that. However, if there were no real significant female characters spread across these different groups (Carell, Bale and Pitt’s separate groups) in the real life story this is based on then I’m more inclined to give them a pass for not having enough female characters.

    They give Marisa Tomei a caregiver-like role, and there are several females in positions of power, e.g., the woman at the ratings agency, Carell’s consistently annoyed boss. Actually, come to think of it, oddly enough most of the women of any substance in this film all revolve around Carell’s character. No larger point there. Just a random thought. Anyway, I’m not saying that you were criticizing the film for presenting such a testosterone fest. In fact, you argue that genre conventions help us adjust to that and align with the trail-blazing guys who were smarter than everyone, and you nicely juxtapose that with Mockingjay II. I guess my only real point, then, is that in this era of #OscarsSoWhite and #OscarsSoMale that I am sympathetic to critiques of overly white, predominantly male movies. However, I also try to remember that if they’re telling a real life story where, unfortunately, there were no significant females then there’s only so much they could do. Adding Margot Robbie in a hot tub, though, they didn’t have to do that, and they did. That’s fair game.

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    1. Thank you so much for reading this! You raise a great point about the historical basis of the film; actually, there WAS a major female character in the book The Big Short: Meredith Whitney (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Big_Short). It kind of makes the question more complicated, right? On the one hand, the filmmakers almost certainly took her out because she didn’t fit the (male) mold of how they wanted to portray this culture. On the other hand, I see this culture as being partly *related* to the problems of the patriarchy, so it could be a fair artistic choice to focus on that connection (although as I think we both agree the movie didn’t quite take as bold an anti-Wall-Street-culture stance as it thought it did 🙂 ).

      To me, one film having mainly male characters isn’t *inherently* a problem, though I’d rarely want to watch such a movie myself. And I agree with you that some historical stories inherently have more characters of one race or gender. But here, it’s more that I think they were, whether intentionally or unintentionally, curating the book in order to celebrate a certain type of masculinity, in a way that really undermines any progressive social message of the film (and was perhaps also intended to get more critical attention specifically because the Oscars love a hyper-masculine film).

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