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‘It’s the Economy, Stupid’: Politico-Economic Theories and Cinematic Language in The Big Short


In this chapter, Nesselhauf analyses how films not only adopt a theory with regard to content but also, on a second level, how aesthetics and the narration of a film are (loosely or explicitly) based on a theory, or rather, how the ‘cinematic language’ correlates with the theoretical basis. After a general introduction to film narration, this interplay is outlined using the example of politico-economic theories in Adam McKay’s The Big Short (2015), a movie about the key events and figures of the US housing bubble of the early 2000s, resulting in the recent worldwide financial crisis.


  • Cinematic Language
  • Politico-economic Theory
  • Housing Bubble
  • Collateralized Debt Obligations (CDOs)
  • Vennet

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  1. 1.

    While the distinction between ‘story’ and ‘plot’ goes back to E.M. Forster’s Aspects of the Novel (1927) (cf. Forster 2005, 87), there are various other terms in literary criticism basically meaning the same, for instance, ‘fabula’ and ‘sjuzet’, as used by Russian formalists and structuralists such as Vladimir Propp or Boris Tomashevsky (cf. Culler 1981, 169ff.), ‘histoire’ and ‘discours’, introduced by Tzvetan Todorov (cf. Todorov 1966, 126f.) and later adopted by Gérard Genette (cf. Genette 1980, 27) or—as a hybrid terminology—‘story’ and ‘discourse’ as used by Seymour Chatman (1978, 19f.).

  2. 2.

    The story includes Emma’s life, basically from her birth until her marriage with George Knightley as the ‘happy ending’ of the novel.

  3. 3.

    The novel starts with her being 21 years old, but includes flashbacks (analepsis) and information on her earlier life, as well as foreshadowings (prolepsis).

  4. 4.

    Here, I use the terminology by French literary theorist Gérard Genette (cf. Genette 1980, 212ff.).

  5. 5.

    The concept of ‘unreliable narration’ was first introduced by American literary scholar Wayne C. Booth in his influential study The Rhetoric of Fiction (1961) and can, for example, be found when the homodiegetic narrator is a child (due to his/her limited knowledge and sense of the world), an elderly (due to a possible temporal distance to the events), as well as addicted to drugs, abusing medication or in psychological treatment (due to a restricted perception and a mental incapacity).

  6. 6.

    This (simplified) model could be expanded by considering further (computer-generated) visual and digital effects added in post-production or a (rather rare) voice-over narrator.

  7. 7.

    We already mentioned the music before as part of the ‘cinematic narrator’, since the score (usually instrumental music) and the soundtrack (songs) can be understood as both a narrative device advancing the plot and an additional aesthetic feature.

  8. 8.

    For further reading, I recommend the following introductions to film narratology and film aesthetics: Bordwell (2008), Bordwell and Thompson (2012), Chatman (1978), Kuhn (2011) and Verstraten (2009).

  9. 9.

    There are also examples in which the narrative contradicts the aesthetic level or vice versa, usually in order to create humour or irony—for example, in the pilot episode of the HBO television series The Sopranos (1999–2007) when Tony Soprano tells his psychologist about an incident with a debtor (‘We Had Coffee’; S1.E1 00:10:07) and the inserted flashback shows how Tony actually knocked him down.

  10. 10.

    This interplay is, obviously, rather an exception and a rare special case, since the majority of novels and films fictionalise a theoretical concept with regard to content but without such a ‘double’ layer of both the content and the ‘cinematic language’. So, for instance, M. Night Shyamalan’s movie The Happening (2008) actually picks up the biological principle of a mode of communication between plants, but does not transfer this to the level of film aesthetics.

  11. 11.

    After Whoops! Why Everyone Owes Everyone and No One Can Pay (2010), Lanchester has even published a second non-fiction book, How to Speak Money: What the Money People Say—And What It Really Means (2014), since.

  12. 12.

    These are the names used in the film version; the character of Jared Vennett is actually based on Greg Lippmann; Mark Baum can be traced back to the actual hedge-fund manager Steve Eisman; and Charlie Ledley and Jamie Mai actually cooperated with Ben Hockett. Other than the film version, Lewis’ non-fiction book maintains the actual names throughout up to the acknowledgements (cf. Lewis 2015, 270).

  13. 13.

    The film version used here is the unedited DVD version from 2016 (125 min.; 2.40:1 letterbox ratio). This first text insert picks up the film’s tagline, ‘This is a true story’. Such annunciations obviously raise certain viewer expectations, although some movies play with this filmic convention, for instance, Joel and Ethan Coen’s Fargo (1996).

  14. 14.

    This commission, appointed by the US government and under the direction of former California State Treasurer Phil Angelides, submitted its final report in January 2011.

  15. 15.

    Interestingly, Margot Robbie already starred in Martin Scorsese’s The Wolf of Wall Street, another critically acclaimed blockbuster film about the recent financial crisis released 2 years before.

  16. 16.

    The projection that only the wealthiest 1% of world population holds the vast majority of economic capital and political power influenced the 2011 ‘Occupy Wall Street’ movement and coined the slogan ‘We are the 99%’.

  17. 17.

    Ben Rickert sells their CDS to Swiss UBS during his vacation, sitting in a pub in England (01:42:44); shortly afterwards, Michael Burry (01:44:11) and finally Mark Baum (01:58:08) sell their positions as well.

  18. 18.

    For further reading, I recommend the following historical and economic introductions: Aliber and Kindleberger (2015), Bachelier (2000), Chancellor (2010), Galbraith (2009), Kindleberger (1973), Martin (2002), Oelßner (1949) and Plumpe (2012).

  19. 19.

    For instance, the bankers of several investment banks selling CDOs to Burry (00:19:01; 00:21:45; 00:22:00; 00:22:23) or the mortgage brokers (00:49:03; 01:53:00; 01:53:34) on the one side, as well as house owners (00:42:24; 01:53:08) or credit receivers (00:51:49) on the other. This is in accordance to Niklas Luhmann’s systems theory approach ‘Who and what cannot be paid will be forgotten’ (‘Wer nicht zahlen kann und was nicht bezahlt werden kann, wird vergessen’; Luhmann 2012, 19). The only (and thereby noticeable) exception is the ‘CDO manager’ Baum meets in Las Vegas (01:19:32), a brutally calculating person who is characterised by his sole greed, but at the end also stays a ‘flat character’.

  20. 20.

    Here, Weber quotes from Franklin’s ‘Advice to a Young Tradesman, Written by an Old One’ (1748).

  21. 21.

    For example, when Baum visits a strip club to talk to a female dancer (00:51:14)

  22. 22.

    For further reading, I recommend the following historical and economic introductions: Freud (2007), Le Bon (2013), Kahneman and Tversky (1979), Mackey (2001) and Thaler and Sunstein (2008).

  23. 23.

    This narrative technique is called ‘breaking the fourth wall’ and goes back to the theatre where the (inexistent) fourth wall is open towards the audience. Directly addressing the viewer also breaks the ‘pact of fiction’, the unofficial agreement between the audience and the play or film regarding its own fictionality and the figures as actors. In ‘threatening’ this illusion, the narrative device of breaking the fourth wall cannot be used in every genre, since it displays the process of narration and thereby metafictionally deconstructs the work of art itself. It is important to stress that such a breaking of the fourth wall and directly addressing the viewer takes place without the other fictional characters taking notice, for instance, when Vennett as part of an audience turns to the camera during a lecture (01:11:32). Besides Vennett as the narrator of the film himself, only Vinnie, a member of Baum’s team (00:26:14), the ‘math specialist’ Jiang (00:30:35) and Shipley/Geller (00:38:39; 01:17:30) also break the fourth wall, interestingly each time in order to interrupt or even contradict Vennett.

  24. 24.

    Such discrepancies can also be found in other scenes, for instance, when Vennett’s statement that there may be ‘definitely some interest’ in the CDS trade is followed by a collage of eight negative responses cut together to a short sequence of less than 7 seconds (00:28:11).

  25. 25.

    For instance, sequences involving Geller, Shipley and Rickert, whose trading activities are independent from Vennett after all.

  26. 26.

    During the first appearance of the main figures, their names are inserted, for instance, when Mark Baum (00:05:06) or Richard Thaler (01:22:38) is introduced. Throughout the film, there are also inserts of short definitions, for example, of ‘tranches’ (00:29:05) or ‘CDOs’ (00:32:10), as well as drawings (00:25:26), which are all constituent of a certain postmodern film aesthetics.

  27. 27.

    The film itself is split in three sections, each one introduced by a paradigmatic motto, firstly a quote by Mark Twain (00:00:49), later an anonymous statement ‘overheard at a Washington, D.C. bar’ (00:59:18) as well as a quote from Haruki Murakami’s novel 1Q84 (01:30:37).

  28. 28.

    Music plays a very important role for and in the film, underlining the ‘MTV style’ already mentioned before. For instance, the Las Vegas scenes are introduced by a postcard-style collage of typical Vegas images, accompanied by the theme from Andrew Lloyd Webber’s musical The Phantom of the Opera (01:07:59), a rap song (01:08:22) and finally a song in the style of Rat Pack (01:08:34). Similarly, songs are chosen deliberately throughout the film in which there is a clear connection between a particular song and the scene, for instance, when the Gun n’ Roses’ song Sweet Child of Mine is used as background music for Vennett’s comment on the restaurant scene with Baum (01:22:10), the Gorillaz’ Feel Good Inc. for Rickert’s arrival in New York (00:58:02) or Ludacris’ Money Maker (as well as typical scenes from hip hop music videos) for Burry’s negotiations with several banks (00:20:59). Besides such usage of actual songs, background sounds and noises are equally interesting, for instance, when Baum’s discussion with the CDO manager is suddenly accompanied by a laugh track as known from television sitcoms (01:21:28).

  29. 29.

    Actually, the amount (‘fourty [sic!] seven million dollars’) is spelled wrong.

  30. 30.

    Marx also claims religious differences already (cf. Marx 1961, 107) and rudimentarily anticipates the later works of Max Weber.

  31. 31.

    As well from his ‘Advice to a Young Tradesman, Written by an Old One’ (1748).

  32. 32.

    This symbol can already be found in Michael Lewis’ book with regard to the trances (cf. exemplarily Lewis 2015, 140). In the film version, it is Jared Vennett using a Jenga tower out of wooden blocks to illustrate the principle of tranches (00:28:49).

  33. 33.

    In the additional DVD feature In the Tranches: Casting (00:14:32)


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Nesselhauf, J. (2019). ‘It’s the Economy, Stupid’: Politico-Economic Theories and Cinematic Language in The Big Short. In: Hamenstädt, U. (eds) The Interplay Between Political Theory and Movies. Springer, Cham.

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