“Who scares me the most? It’s probably a tie between Trump and Carson,” Anchorman helmer Adam McKay told The Daily Beast on a recent afternoon in Beverly Hills, where his fact-based financial crisis satire The Big Short spawned a discussion of two national concerns troubling him: Big Banks and the 2016 presidential race. “But Donald Trump is such a big fat hack that I don’t know if he’s really scary,” he said. “Why are we letting this guy have any sway whatsoever?”
Trump, Ben Carson, and the GOP’s motley crew of presidential candidates might not be the direct focus of The Big Short, based on Michael Lewis’s nonfiction best-seller about the financial crisis. But the film starring Christian Bale, Ryan Gosling, Steve Carell, and Brad Pitt is designed not only to teach audiences exactly how the housing market detonated like a fiscal atom bomb in the late aughts, but to also ask deeper questions in the era of celebrities, selfies, mindless entertainment, and reality TV: Why did most of the world never see it coming? Who dictates the cultural conversations we should be having?
“I had relatives lose their house. I had friends lose their jobs. It was big, man. We did one particularly young focus group, where we asked, ‘Was anyone affected by this?’ and only four people out of 20 raised their hand,” McKay said. “I think it was more than that. I think they didn’t realize it.”
Blending fiction and fact with pop culture montages and informational cameos that break the fourth wall, the Oscar hopeful paints a compelling picture of how bad banking and a precarious housing bubble triggered the worst man-made economic disaster since the Great Depression—and why we need to be vigilant so that the fabrics of society don’t unravel again.
“Where were our minds at? How did we miss this? When you look at a graph of housing prices it’s just insane—it’s flat, flat, then it just skyrockets—and somehow no one knew there was a bubble? What were we paying attention to? I actually think the whole movie is more about that than it is about banking,” he said. “How did these people see it when we didn’t? What were we looking at? Who is telling us what to think about?
“Today’s a great example,” he continued. “Those Paris climate talks are going on and you could argue that that’s one of the biggest stories in human history—that what’s happening there and what’s decided there will affect us more than anything ever, including the Versailles Treaty, whatever you can think of. Yet mostly what I’ve heard about today is that the Patriots are no longer undefeated. Oh, Kobe retired! That’s another big one. I was listening to the radio, flipping through my dials and that’s what I heard about. And I’m part of it, too. But who sets this agenda and why, and how did we get there, and what is important, and what do we really need to know?”
McKay, an SNL alum best known for directing Will Ferrell comedy hits Anchorman, Talladega Nights, Step Brothers, and The Other Guys, might seem an unlikely professor to lecture Americans about what they might not realize has been ailing them. But politics in particular have been creeping into McKay and his Gary Sanchez Productions partner Ferrell’s comedy since they began expertly lampooning George W. Bush on SNL years ago, an act they later took to Broadway.
More recently McKay dreamed up the Mexican “Donaldo Trumpez” this year for Funny Or Die, flipping the script on the blowhard antics that have enabled Trump to bully his way into the national spotlight. Talking 2016, he mulled the possibility of an actual Trump White House.
“It would just mean that America is now a banana republic. Like, we’re just done,” he said, considering his nightmare scenarios: President Trump, President Carson, President Huckabee. “But Trump’s not going to win. Carson’s not going to win. I mean, Carson’s, like, an insane person. If Carson won, I could see martial law being declared. Carson and Huckabee—I could really see those two guys doing some scary, scary stuff. Huckabee would definitely veer us towards a theocracy.”
“Did you see Carson went and visited the refugee camp and his comment was, They seem like very nice people. What?! It’s just so bizarre, man!” he said. “When he said two days after that shooting, ‘I wouldn’t stand there and let people shoot me’… you’ve got to punch a guy if he says that. You can’t let someone say that. I’m flabbergasted by him. I thought Trump was extreme.”
“The two of them together… what if they ran on the same ticket and won? It could happen.” He paused, shrugging. “We re-elected George Bush.”
The craziest reveal of The Big Short isn’t that a handful of misfit brainiacs saw the catastrophe coming and cashed in to the tune of hundreds of millions apiece as so many others lost everything, or that government bailouts saved the banks instead of putting those responsible behind bars.
More unbelievable is the fact that, just a few short years later, we’ve got not just one, but two Republican candidates in the presidential race with direct ties to bankruptcy kingpin Lehman Brothers—Jeb Bush and John Kasich—and yet, their ties to the financial crisis’s biggest bank failure aren’t being scrutinized as history threatens to repeat itself, McKay lamented.
“Nobody talks about that,” McKay explained. “And not only are they not talking about banking reform, they’re talking about getting rid of the little bit of banking reform we’ve got. If people really knew what that meant they would know that’s insane. Fox News especially doesn’t like to talk about banking reform. Never. It’s actually amazing. I would be curious if, like, Media Matters did a minute count on the year, if they even said the phrase ‘banking reform.’”
As it roundly excoriates the banks and Wall Street, The Big Short also makes a point to place some culpability on Washington. “I would say Clinton and Reagan have a lot more to do with it than Bush,” said McKay. “I think Clinton with the Republican Congress may be the most culpable. The stuff they took out with [Sen.] Phil Gramm was really, really bad. Reagan, of course, was the one who began all the deregulation. I’d say the two of them, Reagan and Clinton, were the most culpable. But it’s hard to say because Greenspan was really the guy with his hands on the wheels.”
Obama also bears his share of the burden in the film, says McKay. “Obama’s failure was not to prosecute. That was, I think, a shame on his presidency even though he’s done some good things. But Bush was really blind to glaring warning signs. He could have really done something, if he had been paying attention at all. As far as the clean-up guys go, Bush was a total failure.”
Of all the presidents present and past who shoulder blame, McKay hopes Obama might at least check out The Big Short when it opens this month. “Would he see it? It points a finger at him. He gets a little shit in the end when there are no prosecutions. I would love it, though,” he grinned. “If anyone’s cool enough to do it, he might be. I think he’s actually secure enough in himself that he can take the criticism—open invitation.”