“You know it’s wrong. That it shouldn’t be happening. That it’s stacked against the everyman. It’s this elitist class that is managing to just fleece the rest of America. OK: What can be done?”
The horror movie of the year isn’t a slasher flick or a slow-burn psychological thriller. It’s a frenetically paced comedy about credit default swaps, from the director of Anchorman. Based on Michael Lewis’s nonfiction bestseller, The Big Short stars Steve Carell, Ryan Gosling, and Brad Pitt as a few of the rebel finance gurus who predicted the 2008 housing bubble implosion and cashed in right before millions of Americans lost their homes and jobs.
One of its heroes—antiheroes, really—is played with endearingly idiosyncratic flair by the Dark Knight, but this time not even Christian Bale can save Gotham from itself. As echoes of America’s crippling economic collapse threaten to ring through the halls of Congress, The Big Short might be just the movie the country needs and deserves to remind us of the not-so-distant past.
“The film can hopefully begin a conversation about: Why the hell is it that only seven years after this crisis happened, it could very well happen again?” Bale told The Daily Beast, caffeinated and bounding with energy on a recent afternoon in Beverly Hills. “How come money has become such a part of American politics that this could happen—again?”
Five years ago, Bale won an Oscar for his turn as embattled boxer Dicky Eklund in The Fighter. Here, he slips into the skin of another real-life misfit in The Big Short as former neurologist turned hedge fund manager Michael Burry, the metal-blaring outsider who made $700 million in the crash for his skeptical Scion Capital investors and closed up shop shortly thereafter.
Bale, who spent time getting to know Burry and even wore his clothes during filming, suggests that the huge financial win came at a personal cost to the man.
“They were earning a fortune from the downfall of the housing market and the American economy and the world economy. That’s not heroic in the slightest. But these men all knew that,” said Bale. “Mike Burry, he would be the last man on Earth to ever say he was a hero from it.”
The “short” in the movie’s title refers to a strategy in which investors bet on a bond to fail, not succeed. Those who saw the subprime mortgage collapse coming bet big on shorts and went from obscure money managers to finance legends overnight.
Burry, who personally made $100 million when his gamble paid off, “hates shorts,” said Bale. “I mean, he literally wears shorts, the whole time, but he hates to bet against things. He’s very positive. He wants longs. He wants to be into things that are very progressive and ethical, and he’s a very altruistic man.”
When he finally saw the finished film, Bale was blown away by the work of the castmates he never got to work with on set. He’s now seen the film three times and loves it. “Adam [McKay] got a fucking wonderful cast together,” he raved. “I’m an idiot, I don’t watch many films, so I often meet people who are very well-known actors and I’m kind of like, ‘Oh great, good for you! You’ve got a film—well done, nice one!’ And they look at me like, ‘You dick, I’ve been working for years!’ But just to see these, to me, new faces who are such bloody great actors—there’s not a bad performance in the entire film.”
As McKay told me, Bale wants audiences who see The Big Short to come away motivated and invested in the future.
“Adam managed to make what could be the most boring subject on Earth, make it human, make you understand the consequences, and have you understand that these bastards—of course they want to confuse you, of course they want to talk down to you,” said Bale. “The whole point is that they want to make you feel dumb so that you need them. Then they make a fortune, because we feel we couldn’t possibly do what they do. But it’s not about having to know what a bloody credit default swap is, or whatever. It’s about understanding what it does to people.”
“It’s not just a bunch of slick dicks in their offices showing that they’re the masters of the universe. It’s about these outsiders who actually are not heroes in the slightest. There’s nothing heroic about them. But it’s an indication of how ethically questionable the whole culture had become that just people who saw the truth, and stated the truth, were deemed to be heroic even though they were earning a fortune from this!”
The film notes Burry’s attempts to hold the federal government responsible for missing or ignoring the warning signs he plainly flagged. “And as you see, all that ended up happening was he got audited,” said Bale. “They just wanted to shut him down. There’s the question throughout the film: Is it fraud or incompetence? But after the endnote you go, oh, that’s fraud. Directly fraud.”
Burry and Co. might be examples of very, very rich canaries in the coal mine. But take, for example, the fact that two of the current Republican presidential nominees—Jeb Bush and John Kasich—have direct ties to the financial crisis. With bank deregulation ramping up as a 2016 hot topic, Bale, who has dual citizenship in the U.K. and the U.S., voiced his alarm.
“It’s nuts, isn’t it? Immediately you should not be allowed to run for president,” he said. “You shouldn’t. You’ve got to take the money out of the whole thing. I left school at 16 and I never paid attention while I was in school anyway. I don’t have the answers, surprise, surprise. But far better brains than me should be able to figure this out. We should be able to work out what’s going wrong.”
“Obviously Citizens United, all the Super PACs, everything like that—oh my god, all of that has to be gone out of the way before we can even begin to think about changing,” Bale continued. “Money has to be taken out of politics. It’s done in many other countries; it’s not difficult. This is bloody America. It can be done.”
The actor’s hope is that The Big Short sparks a demand for change. “In 2008 it was, ‘How could this possibly go back to business as usual?’ And here we are—business as usual,” said Bale. “Sometimes you do a film and start to think it’s more important than it really is, but this one, you know… what if it could really change the game?”