Fiscal Movies – A Long View

I watched The Big Short (2015) last night on Netflix and really liked it. The editing was sharp and in turns funny with its fourth-wall-breaking celebrity cameos to explain fiscal jargon, and serious and heartfelt with its interwoven personal narratives and acknowledgement of the net human loss of the 2008 financial crisis even though the subject of the narrative focused on how a small group of people earned big by predicting the housing market collapse.

After watching the film I marveled at how many other films about the 2008 financial crisis there have been. The ones that ostensibly have the event as its subject matter couched in either a documentary format like Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room (2005) and Inside Job (2010), or serious drama like Margin Call (2011) and The Big Short (2015), the algorithm on IMDB will help group together as associated films that you can easily look for in the site if you have a hankering for such films.

The ones I find more curious are the increasingly more fictionalized treatments of the event on the spectrum between realist genres like documentaries and more formalist ones like action films and what they say about how the collective imaginative, so badly bruised by this event, is negotiating and recovering from it.

So together with the above group of films, I also thought of Martin Scorsese’s The Wolf of Wall Street (2013), The International (2009), The Other Guys (2010) and Now You See Me (2013).

The difference between the earlier group of films and Scorsese’s Wolf of Wall Street (2013) is that Scorsese’s more fictional take on the event experienced primarily through Leonardo DiCaprio’s Jordan Belfort tracks the impact of a fraudulent system and male-driven/dominated culture within that system on the corruption of a single stockbroker. Belfort’s drug induced subjective crawl from the country club to his car best illustrates the emphasis on character driven subjective realities in this interpretation of the event compared to the more fact and event driven narratives that pay more attention to timelines and chronology for their dramatic tension in the earlier set of films.

Further down this spectrum between realist and formalist is The International which I didn’t actually watch but I remember thinking when I saw the trailers and read the synopsis that people must really hate bankers now. I mean, the tagline for this film is, “They control your money. The control your government. They control your life. And everybody pays.” So the premise of the film is that interpol agent Louis Salinger (Clive Owen) is coming after a financial institute for they’re role in international arms dealing! I mean wow. I guess cheating people of billions and billions of dollars is not bad enough because as a white collar crime it’s so intangible. This action flick had to turn it into actual arms dealing so as to legitimize some physical violence and bloodletting to feed the public bloodlust for all these banker-types responsible for the financial crisis.

Coincidentally, this split between blue collar and white collar crime and crime divisions and the way in which the action film genre glamorizes one over the other despite how white collar crime has clearly proven to be the far more impactful of the two is the implied subject matter of The Other Guys (2010). Grossly overlooked and under appreciated, this film is so sharp and so funny, I just wish more people would watch it. Formalistically aware, the white collar crime centre of the film is given the action genre treatment while self-reflexively commenting on the mismatch between genre and subject matter. The closing credits are also priceless with its easy to understand infographics breakdown of the crisis. It’s clever, educational AND entertaining… honestly what more can an audience ask for?

Last on my list is Now You See Me (2013), very very tangentially related to anything to do with the financial crisis but I thought maybe part of its success is not just that it’s a fun action film but at the heart of it, it’s a robin hood narrative. The rich are so hated right now because of how the crisis foregrounds the way the rich profit off the rest of society. So when the climactic moment of the film is a bank heist and a shot of money raining down on the citizenry, you know this is wish-fulfillment fantasy. We want to see the ‘bad guys’ (banks/bankers) punished and the good guys (bank robbers!) win, with the little people well looked after in the process.

The danger in this slide towards action/action-comedy films in this treatment of the 2008 financial crisis however, is the oversimplification of all the different factors that led up to it. And one has to wonder how big a role the media plays in helping the collective imaginative ‘heal’ from this traumatic historical event and forget about it in a kind of selective amnesia only for it to repeat itself again in the future.