Wednesday, September 19, 2018

The crash on film

In Wall Street (1987), Michael Douglas, playing corporate raider Gordon Gekko, utters one of the most famous lines in Hollywood history: “Greed, for lack of a better word, is good.” Though Oliver Stone’s film was a critique of Wall Street and its moral bankruptcy, a new generation of traders and bankers adopted “Greed is good” as an unironic motto. More than 30 years later—and a decade after one of the worst crises in American financial history—American cinema is still teeming with Gekkos.

Inside Job is the ideal starting point for anyone looking to understand how a greed-fuelled, out-of-control market collapsed on itself in September 2008. Charles Ferguson’s film released in 2010, two years after the markets imploded. The following year, it won the Oscar for Best Documentary Feature. Ferguson structures the film in five chapters, taking viewers from deregulation in the 1980s to the introduction of derivatives and subprime lending and, eventually, the crash and its aftermath.

Research for the film started in 2008, and Ferguson learnt before it became common knowledge that investment banks had sold securities that they knew were bad, and would often design them to fail so they could bet against them later. “If somebody had told me that in the fall of 2008, that this had gone on on a huge scale, tens of billions of dollars, I would have said no, that’s just too extreme,” he told NPR. “People don’t do that. And if you do do it, you would go to jail. They did do it, and nobody’s gone to jail.”

Many of the terms and individuals discussed in Inside Job show up in some form or the other in The Big Short. It’s a little surprising that the director of Anchorman: The Legend Of Ron Burgundy and The Other Guys is also responsible for the best fiction film on the 2008 crash. Yet, perhaps it needed someone like Adam McKay, maker of boisterous, institution-puncturing comedies, to fully expose the self-serving absurdity of the financial system in the late 2000s. The film, based on Michael Lewis’ book The Big Short: Inside The Doomsday Machine, is a searing look at the crisis from several interlinked points of view: bankers, traders, hedge fund managers—everyone who participated, with or without moral compunction, in the shorting of the system.

Like McKay’s other films, the dialogue flies thick and fast, and because a lot of it is business-speak like “tranches” and “CDOs” and “swaps”, he comes up with various kinds of sugar to help the jargon go down. This includes a first-rate cast (just for starters: Christian Bale, Ryan Gosling, Steve Carrell, Brad Pitt), and cameos from Margot Robbie, Selena Gomez and Anthony Bourdain, all explaining complex financial concepts. It’s a blistering piece of cinema: sure-footed, angry and hilarious.

One of the first fiction films on the 2008 crisis was a slow-burn look at the institution primarily responsible for causing it—big banking. J.C. Chandor’s Margin Call (2011) is about a major (fictional) New York investment bank that finds out the mortgage-backed securities in its portfolio are going to be practically worthless overnight. Faced with the decision to go under, they decide to dump them, selling to unsuspecting consumers—mirroring the actions of actual Wall Street banks.

Margin Call recalls the New Hollywood Cinema of the 1970s, in particular films like All The President’s Men and The Conversation, which painted an unflattering picture of public institutions and the government. Shot like a neo-noir, the film manages to damn the banking system as a whole without losing sympathy for the characters lower in the pecking order. Like The Big Short, this film too has a wonderful ensemble, with Zachary Quinto, Paul Bettany, Kevin Spacey and Stanley Tucci, and a brilliant turn by Jeremy Irons as the head of the bank, John Tuld, whose name rhymes with that of Lehman Brothers’ final chairman, Richard Fuld.

Considering how central the housing market was to the collapse, it’s not surprising that there have been fiction and non-fiction features focused on this aspect alone. The Queen Of Versailles is a 2012 documentary by Lauren Greenfield about David Siegel, who made a fortune through timeshare properties, and his wife Jackie, a former model. When we first meet them in the film, they’re some way into constructing the largest house in the US, modelled on the palace of Versailles in France. Then, September 2008 strikes, and the market collapses. As David’s business takes a hit and they’re forced to consider selling the house, the film becomes a warped mirror image of the problems being faced—on a much smaller but more life-changing scale—by their countrymen.

In Ramin Bahrani’s 99 Homes, we get a more sobering look at what happened to many home-owners during and after the crash. Dennis Nash (Andrew Garfield), an unemployed construction worker, is evicted from his foreclosed house along with his son and mother by the police, who defer to a real estate agent known as Rick Carver (Michael Shannon). Desperate for money, Nash goes to work for Carver, helping him put pressure on other home-owners and evict them from their homes.

Though Nash is the focus of the film, Carver is as fascinating a villain as the Wall Street types in The Big Short and Margin Call. Shannon is in typically ruthless form, throwing a baleful gaze on the suffering around him. One particular speech he gives Nash sums up the state of the country at that moment in time. “America doesn’t bail out the losers,” he says. “America was built by bailing out winners. By rigging a nation—of the winners, by the winners, for the winners.”

This piece appeared in Mint Lounge.

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