If there’s anything true about movie fans and readers it’s that they’re an opinionated lot. Everyone has a favorite. So loyalties are bound to be tested when Hollywood digs into the well of ready-made screenplays at the local Barnes and Noble. In a showdown between different versions of the same story everyone has a favorite. This year’s round of Oscar nominees included a pair of notables, The Martian and The Revenant. Michael Lewis’ tome The Big Short is another member of the crossover club carrying the ‘based on a true story’ label that remained high on critic’s lists without visiting outer space or including a bear in the cast. The author of Moneyball tackled the Great Recession, the still-relevant 2007-2008 stock market crash in a way that doesn’t require a doctorate in economics by connecting it to the experiences of five men who — as one associate put it — made a fortune betting against a pyramid scheme in the housing market nobody else could see.
Each of them worked in finance, but were not “inside the belly of the beast,” as a partner at one money management firm explained to Lewis. “We saw the bodies being carried out, but we were never inside.” Their ranks included Steve Eisman, a Harvard Law graduate and erstwhile corporate lawyer with an affinity for Spider-Man; and Mike Burry, a former medical resident, trader, and blogger who started a capital investment fund with money from an insurance settlement. The group also included Cornwall Capital: partners Charlie Ledley and Jamie Mai had been associates at a New York private equity firm then struck out on their own in the options market and traded Powerpoint presentations over what the next move should be; and their associate Ben Hockett, a former derivatives trader who brought along a tendency to hunt for financial and environmental disasters. Each approached the same events from a different angle, but didn’t hold on to the same assumptions bond traders and rating agencies did.
The 2015 movie is a different animal. The ability to distinguish a Credit Default Swap from a Collateralized Debt Obligation is not essential, but it does help. Lewis’ telling is a bit like watching CNBC — the primary audience has enough of an idea that it doesn’t need a refresher. Adam McKay’s adaptation is closer to The Daily Show with its footnotes and asides — the Jenga bit is a good example — that make the related jargon understandable; an important feature with more complex derivatives, like one known as a synthetic CDO. The Anchorman auteur took a chance by breaking Denis Diderot’s fourth wall a few times to bring the audience into the scam in a movie that could otherwise play like a satire, an unintended benefit of Lewis’ thorough research. The Blind Side author included tales of CDO traders who were profiting handsomely from the subprime business and employees at one of three rating agencies who were unwilling to prod big players like Goldman Sachs and Deutsche Bank for fear of losing out to their rivals.
Both versions are missing anything more than anecdotes from the borrowers central to events, like one Lewis offered of a housekeeper/townhouse owner from New York who, as the home’s value climbed, was approached by lenders encouraging her to refinance and take out another loan. Their stories could have been useful along the way, but would have drawn the focus from where it belongs when panic and denial start setting in as default rates overwhelmed lender’s projections. There are plenty of theories that explain who or what was at fault; fingers started pointing in every direction from the first signs of a collapse. Inside the Doomsday Machine is not an attempt to find an answer or a villain. It is a window into the chain of events that inspired a call to use eminent domain to rescue “underwater” homeowners, rallied protesters seeking refinancing on upside-down loans, and brought on a settlement between five major banks and the federal government. It is still echoing in this year’s presidential campaign, most notably in Bernie Sanders’ crusade against Wall Street. After this ride the finance industry will never look the same again.