So you’re trying to understand the GameStop story, in which a subreddit banded together and managed to bankrupt a hedge fund, causing utter chaos on Wall Street all week. If you’re not involved in finance, it can be pretty confusing, full of jargon like pulling a “short squeeze” and requiring a decent grasp of how hedge funds play the market regularly.
But there’s a solution, and it doesn’t involve opening 20 Wikipedia tabs to try to understand the entire history of Wall Street. It just means sitting on your couch for a running time of 130 minutes, and watching the 2015 film “The Big Short.”
“The Big Short,” directed by Adam McKay from a screenplay he wrote with Charles Randolph, details the 2008 financial crisis triggered by the housing bubble, and is based on a Michael Lewis book by the same name; it won the Academy Award for Best Adapted Screenplay, and was nominated for numerous others. It’s lightly fictionalized, and takes a somewhat comedic tone, but all the characters are based on real investors and firms, and it closely follows real events.
If a movie about subprime mortgages does not immediately make you excited, you should know it stars Brad Pitt, Steve Carell and Christian Bale. Plus, Margot Robbie, Selena Gomez, Anthony Bourdain and Nobel Prize-winning economist Richard Thaler make cameos to add extra pizazz to explanations of some of the more technical concepts. Anthony Bourdain explaining a CDO via a metaphor involving fish stew? Somehow it all makes sense.
The film hinges in large part on the concept of the short, in which investors basically bet against the success of certain stocks, profiting when their value falls — a concept which is also central to the hedge fund tactic in the GameStop chain of events. So even though the current Wall Street debacle has nothing to do with the housing bubble, you’ll still come out with a better understanding of some key stock market terms and tactics that will make the GameStop story make more sense. Besides, the fast-paced dialogue and celebrity cameos manage to make financial jargon feel thrilling. Honestly, it was basically our entire economic system at stake — and maybe it is again, this time thanks to Reddit — so the suspense isn’t misplaced.
Michael Burry (Christian Bale), an eccentric fund manager in Berkeley, is one of the first to realize he can bet against the housing market, or short it, though none of his investors believe him for much of the movie. And Michael Baum (played by Steve Carrell) is based on New York City fund manager Steve Eisman, a yeshiva-educated New Yorker who discovered a mortgage scam in Florida that led him to short the housing market as well. Along the way, he also exposed credit-rating agencies’ dishonest practices and conflicts of interest, which contributed to the crisis. The film was produced by Arnon Milchan, an Israeli billionaire who also made the shidduch between Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie, introducing the future couple.
“The Big Short” isn’t streaming on any of the major platforms, but is available to rent on most, including Amazon Prime and iTunes. And I promise, it’s actually a fun movie. As long as the economy as we know it is being upended by a group of Redditors, you might as well relax on the couch and have Margot Robbie explain it to you from her bathtub.
Mira Fox is a fellow at the Forward. You can reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @miraefox.
To understand the GameStop story, watch ‘The Big Short’