Every year around this time I start watching all the Oscar-nominated films. And I mean all of them, even the “boring” ones. And when I watch the Oscars I watch the whole thing. I’m not one of those people who just tunes in for the last 20 minutes so they can catch who won the big categories. I even watch the full pre-show. And this year I’m especially excited because I think it will mark a turning point for Hollywood.
It started with history; blockbuster movies about historical events allowed audiences to be entertained while having history explained to them. Next came politics. Thanks to House of Cards I probably know more about the American electoral process than the Canadian one, even though I spent 12 years learning about the latter in school. More recently, science is being taught through movies. And I don’t mean the simple, grade school, water cycle stuff that Bill Nye does. I mean real science.
That’s all great. After watching Interstellar my friend could explain the basics of Einstein’s Theory of Relativity. She’s an Arts student, so she didn’t learn it in school. She learned a seriously complicated scientific concept from a movie. From Matthew McConaughey. And she’s definitely not the only one. So many people can tell you about complex science and the intricacies of historical events and the detailed structure of the American government, but so few people can tell you what happened to our economy in 2007. Or what a mortgage-backed security is. Or how a mortgage even works. Our society is financially illiterate. I graduated high school with no idea how to make a budget, pay taxes, or take out a bank loan, but Thank God I can at least explain what mitochondria do.
Back to the Oscars. By far my favourite Best Picture nominee this year is The Big Short, which I think might just win despite strong competition from Spotlight and The Revenant. More importantly, I think that everyone should watch The Big Short. There’s never before been such an informative, yet entertaining, movie about finance.
There have, of course, been movies made about finance and economics. Mostly crime-related, these movies typically tell the story of some real or fictional crook who makes a bunch of money by scamming investors. The one flaw? The scam is never fully explained. Hollywood has decided that financial jargon and economic explanations are simply too boring to be allowed.
When The Other Guys was released in 2010 I was pleased to see that the movie didn’t skim over important plot points or explanations. It tells the fictional story of two cops (played by Will Ferrell and Mark Wahlberg) stopping a shady banker from stealing investor’s money. The only one who understands the banker’s scheme is Ferrell’s character, a stereotypically nerdy accountant. He tries throughout the entire film to explain it to Wahlberg’s character, who doesn’t get it at all and even threatens to lock someone in the Federal Reserve. This satire highlights how woefully ignorant most people are when it comes to finance and economics. There are also numerous references to the 2007-08 crisis and the closing credits feature simple explanations and statistics regarding financial crime. Aside from these basic explanations, however, the movie leaves the audience no more financially knowledgeable.
Three years later, The Wolf of Wall Street hit theatres. Martin Scorsese and Leonardo DiCaprio being my all time favourite director-actor duo, I saw it the day it was released. In all my excitement I failed to realize just how wildly inappropriate the movie was and took my 12-year-old brother with me, probably scarring him for life. But even after enduring some very bawdy scenes sitting next to my baby brother, my least favourite part of the movie was this: Leo’s character stops in the middle of explaining his scheme to tell the audience “Look – I know you’re not following what I’m saying anyway, right? That’s okay, that doesn’t matter.” Hollywood strikes again. Drawn out, never-ending scenes of naked hookers are fine, but heaven forbid an explanation last longer than 30 seconds.
Now we’ve reached a turning point. The Big Short will actually teach you something. It tells the true story of the very few investors who anticipated the 2007-08 crisis and shorted the housing market to make tons of money. It’s funny too, thanks to director Adam McKay (the guy who brought us The Other Guys, Step Brothers, and both Anchorman movies). McKay also breaks the fourth wall with cutaway explanations featuring random celebrities. Chef Anthony Bourdain sets up a fish stew analogy to explain CDOs. Selena Gomez further explains CDOs through a black jack example. Ryan Gosling’s character talks directly to the camera in a style reminiscent of The Office to explain the plot. And everyone’s favourite: Margot Robbie explains subprime mortgages in a bubble bath. Though cheesy, if that’s what it takes to hold society’s attention long enough to explain the housing crisis, I’m all for it.
I mean, just look at this trailer. Doesn’t it make you want to watch The Big Short?
You should watch it. Everyone should. The average person doesn’t know enough about economics or finance to really understand why they lost their job/pension/house/savings in 2007. What easier way to learn than through a funny and entertaining movie? In hindsight, the crisis could have been avoided if millions of financially illiterate Americans hadn’t taken out mortgages they couldn’t afford. There’s no question that corporate greed takes most of the blame, but at the end of the day the banks didn’t force people to take out mortgages. So do your part. Watch The Big Short and don’t stop there. Become a better person by educating yourself. Become financially literate.