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William DiGravio

Corpus Christi College

University of Cambridge
MPhil in Film & Screen Studies
Faculty of Modern & Medieval Languages & Linguistics
26 June 2020

“There Are Always Markers”:

Visualizing Capital in Adam McKay’s
The Big Short (2015) & Vice (2018)

Dissertation Submitted for the Degree of Master of Philosophy

Supervisor: Dr John David Rhodes

Referencing Style: The Chicago Manual of Style (Author-Date)

Word Count: 14,999



On April 15, 2009, Elizabeth Warren stood in the guest bathroom of The Daily Show
with Jon Stewart and vomited. Warren, then a professor at Harvard Law School,
chaired the Congressional Oversight Panel of the Troubled Asset Relief Program
(T.A.R.P.), which aimed to stabilize the United States financial system in the wake of the
2007-08 financial crisis, or the “Great Recession.” She planned to discuss both how the
recession happened and what the government could do to prevent future crises. In her
memoir A Fighting Chance, Warren (2014, 106-109) describes the interview as
“terrible” and remembers thinking to herself in the moment, “I should quit now.” When
their conversation ended, Jon Stewart asked Warren to record one more segment. “You
wanted to deliver an important message here, and you didn’t get to it,” he said. “If I gave
you one sentence, what would you tell people?” The cameras rolled again, and Warren
began to describe the economic woes that had plagued the country from its inception
through the 1930s. In the wake of the Great Depression, the United States began to
seriously regulate financial institutions and went fifty years without a crisis. “But in the
1980s,” Warren said, “we started pulling the threads out of the regulatory fabric, and we

found ourselves back in the boom-and-bust cycle.” “That is the first time in six months
to a year that I felt better. … For a second, that was like financial chicken soup for me,”
Stewart replied. “That actually put things into perspective and made sense for me.”
Stewart’s response to Warren’s explanation revealed two things about the United States
in the wake of the crash. First, that even in April 2009, the public remained confused as
to why the housing market grew so unstable that it was able to tank the global economy.
Second, that the ability to distill complex information into a digestible explanation was
an invaluable skill in that period, and one that helped turn Warren into a political star in
the years that followed. When Stewart retired from The Daily Show in 2015, Warren,
then nearly three years into her first term as a United States senator, posted the clip on
her official Facebook page. “That moment changed my life,” Warren (2015) wrote. “I’m
grateful for every single time someone has come up to me and asked: ‘Hey, aren’t you
that lady I saw on Jon Stewart?’ Because almost every time I’ve told someone, ‘Yup,
that’s me,’ they’ve followed it up with: ‘Keep fighting!’”

Two years before the voters of Massachusetts elected Elizabeth Warren to the United
States Senate, Adam McKay directed The Other Guys (2010), his fourth feature film and
collaboration with actor/comedian Will Ferrell. The film follows Allen “Gator” Gamble
(Ferrell) and Terry Hoitz (Mark Wahlberg), two members of the New York City Police
Department who are repeatedly disrespected by their peers. Gamble is a “desk jockey”
who can barely handle his gun let alone the pressures of a real police case. Hoitz is the
muscle, a hothead who longs for action. While investigating billionaire David Ershon
(Steve Coogan) for a permit violation, the duo unearth a Ponzi scheme hatched by
Ershon to conceal the losses of the company Lendl Global. They later learn that the $32
million Ershon requires to complete the cover up has been taken from the NYPD
pension fund. They arrest Ershon and expose the scheme, triggering a market crash. The
film’s narrator (Ice-T) informs the spectator that within 24 hours “the government
issued T.A.R.P. funds to bailout Lendl. They were too big to fail.” The film ends with
Gamble and Hoitz sitting together before their next mission. “Goldman Sachs,” Gamble
says. “This case is gonna be nasty.” The film is partially a parody of the Great Recession
and its aftermath, one that questions the morality of bailing out financial institutions
with the tax dollars of the individuals those institutions aimed to exploit. The image

fades and the credits roll, but only on the left-hand side of screen. On the right-hand
side appears a graphic explaining how a Ponzi scheme works. The credits then move to
the right side of the screen and a new graphic appears. An animation shows the “$700
billion T.A.R.P. bailout” of the big banks in the wake of the Great Recession and divides
that number by the population of the United States. The bailout money would amount to
$2,258 for every man, woman, and child in the country. The credits go on and similar
graphics continue to appear. It is by way of the credits that McKay explicitly ties the plot
of The Other Guys to not only the Great Recession but the rot at the core of the
American economic and political systems and, more broadly, global capitalism itself. In
the film, Police Captain Gene Mauch (Michael Keaton) works a second job as a manager
at Bed, Bath & Beyond. The credits later inform us that the maximum retirement benefit
for a New York police office in 2010 is $48,026. For a corporate executive? $83.6
million. McKay leaves no room for misinterpretation and not only invites but demands a
political reading of his work. The credits are not subtle, but nor do they explain in a way
that feels overly sanctimonious. Instead, they reveal how capitalism itself has, in fact,
become the real joke. Though the credits are an effective link to the film’s satirical
depiction of Wall Street, their inclusion invites a broader examination of the
visualization of capitalism in Hollywood cinema. The question of seeing capital is one
raised by Alberto Toscano and Jeff Kinkle in their Jamesonian study, Cartographies of
the Absolute. Toscano and Kinkle (2015, 171) offer a compelling account of The Other

It is everything that makes Will Ferrell’s character unsuitable for a film like that – his
passion for paperwork and protocol – which allows him to crack the case. Wahlberg’s
incomprehension mirrors the inability of the director to create a comedic action
narrative that doesn’t resort to tired tropes of the genre, the car chases and
shootouts. … Only the closing credits suggest that the film was ‘about’ the financial
crisis, and the systemic inequalities and shady dealings that helped bring it about.
This disjunction, between the deconstruction of the buddy-cop genre and the
didactic diagram of economic malfeasance, makes The Other Guys a strangely
reflective take on filming the crisis.

I posit that the credits also portray a sense of urgency on behalf of the director. Rather
than leave room for allegorical readings of plot and form, McKay instead lays bare the
politics of the film as a call to action, an indication that something in the American

zeitgeist has changed; political messages can no longer remain coded. McKay would
continue his critique of capital by directing his first movies without Ferrell: The Big
Short (2015) and Vice (2018). The Big Short follows three groups of financers who
uncover the instability of the United States housing. They short (bet against) the market
and make millions, and in the process expose the malpractices of the big banks that
triggered the Great Recession. Vice chronicles the political rise of former Vice President
Dick Cheney (Christian Bale). The film is a decidedly unsympathetic portrait of Cheney,
who personifies the symbiotic relationship between capital and American government.
Both films attempt to educate the spectator on the historical events depicted in the
diegesis, while simultaneously moving beyond such exposition to visualize how the
events are symptoms of capital itself. McKay’s work addresses one of the central
aesthetic questions of postmodernism: how to achieve the seemingly impossible task of
visualizing the totality of the global capitalist system. 1 The question of whether one can
see the inner workings of capital extends back to Marx himself, who, in his chapter on
the commodity in Capital: Volume I, discusses “exchange-value”, or the price assigned
to a product independent of its “use-value”, i.e. the value relative to how useful it is to a
person. Marx (1990, 177) writes, “So far no chemist has ever discovered exchange-value
in a pearl or a diamond.” In other words, exchange value, the value assigned by capital,
is not an inherently discernable quality. To “see” exchange value requires a working
knowledge of capital. For Fredric Jameson (1995, 82), writing more than a century later,
“Capital itself … is now our true ontology.” The visualization of knowledge — of an
understanding of capital — is a subject famously taken up by Jameson in his work. In
The Geopolitical Aesthetic, he offers an allegorical reading of All the President’s Men
(Alan Pakula; 1976), which tells the story of two Washington Post journalists, Bob
Woodward (Robert Redford) and Carl Bernstein (Dustin Hoffman), and their
investigation into what would become the Watergate scandal. Jameson (82) describes
one moment in particular as depicting the “impossible vision of totality.” The moment
comes when Woodward and Bernstein, searching for evidence of wrongdoing, visit the
Library of Congress to sift through loan requests made by the White House. Jameson
pays particular attention to the scene’s (and one of the film’s) most famous shots. Pakula

1 Toscano and Kinkle provide an excellent summary in the chapter “Seeing Socialism,” 78-100.

starts with an unsteady two-shot of the reporters pouring over records, and then pulls
away via a crane shot that brings the camera to the top of the dome of the Library of
Congress. The camera peers down on the two journalists as they sit and sift through
piles of information. Jameson (82) writes that the shot “confirms the momentary
coincidence between knowledge as such and the architectural order of the astronomical
totality itself, and yields a brief glimpse of the providential, as what organizes history
but is unrepresentable within it.”

This project aims to understand how both The Big Short and Vice attempt to visualize
the totality of capital, a system that is beyond representation. Chapter One focuses on
The Big Short and its aesthetic. The Big Short notably recalls a number of film styles
and traditions, which McKay blends to offer a compelling visualization of capital that
moves the film beyond merely a narrativization of the Great Recession. Chapter Two
centers on Vice as an historical film. My analysis deals with the hermeneutics of
character, focusing on how McKay personifies capital with his depiction of Cheney. The
second chapter is shorter than the first, and does not engage with the film’s formal
elements, which are similar to The Big Short’s and equally significant. Yet one of the
goals of this dissertation is to offer two distinct approaches to understanding how
McKay visualizes the workings of capital.

Chapter One: The Big Short, or, The Aestheticization of a Crisis

The Big Short was released in the final month of 2015, into a political and economic
climate that now feels unrecognizable. Three years into President Barack Obama’s
second term, the economy had seemingly recovered from the Great Recession and the
race to succeed him was underway, with former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton widely
believed to be the heir apparent. Many viewed Donald Trump as a laughingstock,
unlikely to best seasoned politicians like former Governor Jeb Bush for the Republican
nomination. The nominating contests, of course, did not unfold as planned. The socialist
Senator Bernie Sanders posed a serious challenge to Clinton for the Democratic
nomination, and Trump, with his racist brand of pseudo—, right-wing populism would
go on to win the presidency. In 2017, Clinton released a memoir, What Happened to
discuss what many political observers, her campaign staff included, had missed. But
viewers of The Big Short may have had a sense of what was to come in 2016, or at least,
with the gift of hindsight, now see that the film was prophetic in the way it tapped into
both the history of a crisis and the failings of capitalism that contributed to the public’s
resentment of the American political and economic elite, embodied no better than by
the Bush and Clinton families.2 Filmmaker Michael Moore, a self-described populist,

2 I do not mean to suggest that the election of Donald Trump was chiefly the byproduct of “economic
anxiety,” as some have falsely claimed. Political scientists have proven that racism and sexism
were more strongly related to support for Trump than economic factors. See: Nteta, Tatishe, and
Matthew C. MacWilliams, and Brian F. Schaffner. 2018. “Understanding White Polarization in the
2016 Vote for President: The Sobering Role of Racism and Sexism.” Political Science Quarterly
133, no. 1: 9 – 34.

predicted Trumps’ election. Seven years earlier he released Capitalism: A Love Story
(2009), a documentary about the financial crisis. Moore’s work was a less successful
precursor to The Big Short. McKay’s film, which grossed $70 million (Box Office Mojo,
2020), takes on a documentary aesthetic and, like Moore’s work, is a polemical,
comedic, and unapologetically self-righteous exposition on the failings of American
capitalism. In their breakdown of Moore’s filmography in New York magazine, critics
Will Leitch and Tim Grierson (2018) write that “the movie is compelling in Moore’s
usual way, but it’s a little too close to the topic at hand to do much more than shake
righteous fists. (The Big Short would make the furious case so much better six years
later.)” Most critics in the wake of The Big Short’s release agreed with their observation,
noting the cultural relevance of the film and McKay’s unusually accessible presentation
of financial jargon. Glenn Kenny (2015) described the film as “not your father’s financial
crisis movie.” A.O. Scott (2015) of the New York Times predicted that the film would
“restore your faith in Hollywood.” The film’s clear distillation of the financial crisis, Scott
said, made him want to go “out to the garage to look for a pitchfork.” The above analyses
note the film’s political significance but fail to comment on the formal elements in a
meaningful way. More robust analyses, like Nick Pinkerton’s (2018, 58) in Film
Comment, said that McKay “wasn’t filmmaker enough for the job.” Vadim Rizov (2016,
71) offered a more nuanced review in Sight & Sound, writing that “it’s an (admittedly
successful) attempt at summarizing some complex talking points, but the scattershot
final product is as irritating as it is righteously motivated.” Despite disagreements over
the film’s formal success, most critics agreed that The Big Short is an engaging film, one
that invites its audience to learn and reflect on the causes of the Great Recession. How
The Big Short communicates economic theory and policy to its audience is at the center
of much of the limited scholarship on the film. Alexander Long (2018, 339) argues that
the film is an effective rebuke of neoliberalism, one that “aims to legitimize anger
toward that system while also hoping to spur discourse directed at altering our
relationship with that system.” Gavin Benke (2018) places The Big Short among the first
public narratives to deal with behavioral economics, a relatively new mode of economic
thinking that seeks to explain why consumers often do not make rational choices.
Traditional modes of neoliberal economic thinking are underpinned by the notion that
consumers are best off when given a wide array of choices (i.e. the free market, Adam

Smith’s invisible hand) and can make the best decision for themselves. Benke cites the
work of George Akerlof and Robert Shiller, who, in their book, Phishing for Phools,
describe the need for public narratives that push back against the American myth that
consumers are best left to their own devices when making economic decisions. The Big
Short, Benke (2018, 306) argues, partially succeeded in supplying this new narrative,
but the film is “both an advance and a retrenchment, exposing some of the problems in
forging a new grand economic narrative and suggesting that transitions between such
economic narratives are anything but clean breaks.” In the most comprehensive analysis
of The Big Short, Seth Friedman, Antonio Golán, and Jeffrey Onge (2019) label the film
“public pedagogy,” a film that is able to offer “a mainstream critique that explains the
conditions for collapse and translates the arcane and complex technical discourse of
financial elites for a broad audience.” Their analysis draws upon the work of Henry
Giroux (2018, 10), whose writings have sought to understand mass media as a form of
public pedagogy. Friedman, Golán, and Onge view The Big Short’s prime goal to be
explaining the causes of the housing crisis to the spectator. The Big Short, they argue,
aims to disprove the “conventional wisdom” — a term coined by economist John
Kennedy Galbraith to describe the persistence of failed economic theories among the
public — that the housing market could never fail. In their view, the film is a call to
action, an attempt to arm the citizenry with the knowledge to understand “the economic
mechanisms that caused the Great Recession.” They view the Great Recession as a
“rhetorical crisis,” one in which the economic jargon was so complex that the citizens
were unable to understand what happened to them and why. Such crises, Friedman,
Golán, and Onge (2019) argue, call for “rhetorically innovate efforts to bridge the gap.”
They cite The Big Short’s use of visual metaphor and celebrity cameos as instances of
such efforts. For example, at one point, Jared Vennett (Ryan Gosling) uses a Jenga
tower to explain how the housing market is artificially supported by subprime
mortgages. To demonstrate what will happen when consumers inevitably default on
those mortgages, Vennett begins removing pieces from the Jenga tower until it
collapses. The scene is paired with one of the film’s several diegesis-breaking celebrity
cameos, in this case the chef Anthony Bourdain, who likens the housing market to an
old stew. In the restaurant business, Bourdain explains, an old fish will typically be
added to a stew just before it spoils so it is not wasted. The unknowing customer, who

expects fresh food, is tricked while the business turns a profit. Friedman, Golán, and
Onge argue that such metaphors succeed in educating the spectator. The Jenga
metaphor, they write, “suggests that expert knowledge is, in some way, available to
everybody, provided they take the time to look.”

With a body of scholarship so dedicated to examining how The Big Short communicates
financial jargon to the layman, it would be foolish to argue that the film does not have
educational aims. And while there is much to admire in the analyses I have cited (I will
engage them further below), there is more to be said about the film than how well it does
or does not communicate information about one specific event, no matter that event’s
historical significance. My goal here is to move beyond pedagogy and instead turn to the
film’s aesthetic, one that notably recalls and blends a number of film styles and
traditions. The Big Short also addresses, as I have previously mentioned, an aesthetic
question raised by theorists of postmodernism: how visualize the totality of the global
capitalist system. My analysis of The Big Short aims to move beyond the Great
Recession and instead focus on how the film’s formal elements visualize the inner
machinations of capital itself. By embracing an aesthetic of complexity, The Big Short
does not document the system in its totality, but instead makes clear the impossibility of
such a visualization, and in doing so reveals the nature of the system. In his discussion
of cognitive mapping in Postmodernism, or The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism,
Jameson (1991, 51) writes of an aesthetic need “to enable a situational representation on
the part of the individual subject to that vaster and properly unrepresentable totality
which is the ensemble of society’s structures as a whole.” Just as the aforementioned
scholars have cited The Big Short as a form of public pedagogy in line with Giroux’s
studies of mass media, I argue that The Big Short formally functions as a kind of
cognitive map, one that allows the spectator to better understand capital and their place
within the system. My analysis will focus on three formal elements in The Big Short that
attempt to visualize capital and situate the spectator within the system to better
understand its flaws: the use of the hand-held camera, found footage sequences, and
direct address by way of celebrity cameo. Each of these aesthetic choices not only
embraces the complexities of the global capitalist system but does so in a way that

brings the spectator into the narrative, indicting us for own complicity in the failings of
capital; for our willing blindness. McKay’s aesthetic recalls the aforementioned dome
shot in Pakula’s All the President’s Men, which for Jameson (1995, 79) mapped the
“impossible vision of totality.” In The Geopolitical Aesthetic, Jameson (67) writes that
allegorical filmmaking will typically use “political material” to comment upon
economics, and “economic material” to comment upon politics. However, in Pakula’s
film, “we approach the squaring of the circle of this allegorical law: a political film that
deceptively looks like a political film, a representation that seeks to convey some
conception of political relations by way of overtly political material.” In watching such
films, the critic must move beyond the events depicted and analyze how formal events
reveal the workings of the system that gave birth to such monumental events. After all, it
would be reductive to evaluate All the President’s Men solely on how well it explains the
facts of the Watergate scandal. And just as All the President’s Men uses a political crisis
to critique the political system, The Big Short depicts an economic crisis to understand
the global capitalist system. Crises like Watergate and the Great Recession allow the
spectator to momentarily visualize the totality of the political (the federal bureaucracy)
and economic (Wall Street) systems of capital. To frame his analysis of All the
President’s Men, Jameson quotes an interview with Pakula in Film Comment (Richard
Jameson, 1976, 16), in which the director says the shot “gave me a sense of how lost they
are in this thing, how tiny these figures are in terms of the enormity of the task, and the
heroic job they’re trying to achieve.” The protagonists of The Big Short are set with a
similarly large task: understanding when, how, and why the housing market will crash.

The notion of sight is at the narrative center of The Big Short: who sees what, how do
they see it, when do they see it, ‘why doesn’t anyone else see it,’ ‘no one else sees that,’
‘you’ve got to see what going on’, ‘let’s go see it for ourselves.’ Michael Burry (Christian
Bale), who has a glass eye, is the first one in the film to see the incoming crash, i.e. what
his bosses can’t see. After he bets more than $1.3 billion of his hedge fund’s capital
against the market, Burry’s boss, Lawrence Fields (Tracy Letts) flies to San Jose in a

Fields: We have no confidence in your ability to identify macroeconomic trends.


Burry: You flew here to tell me that. Why? I mean, anyone can see there's a real
estate bubble.

Fields: Actually, no one can see a bubble... that's what makes it a bubble.

Burry: That's dumb, Lawrence. There are always markers.

Seeing equates to knowledge. Burry sees the market is flawed and later the corruption of
the system. Knowledge is money. Burry sees opportunity; a profit. And more
importantly, Burry sees his future, and how shorting the system and profiting off the
greed, stupidity, and corruption of the banks will free him and his family of that very
system. The Big Short is also about what people choose not to see or, rather, see and
decide to ignore. In the early months of 2007, subprime mortgages began to default, but
the bond ratings remained strong. Unable to identify the cause of this phenomenon,
Mark Baum (Steve Carrell) and one of his associates visit a New York City credit agency
to investigate. The agent they meet has just undergone laser eye surgery and wears a
pair of thick black sunglasses. After pressing the matter again and again, the agent
admits that the credit ratings are fraudulent: if mortgage bonds don’t receive AAA
ratings, she says, then the banks will simply take their business to another credit agency.
As she says this, she removes the glasses. Her impaired vision is a gentle but also
obvious metaphor for the fraudulent rating system and suggests that the system itself is
not only hard to see, but forces people not to see; the system rewards blindness. The Big
Short attempts to push back against such blindness and provides the spectator with a
way to see the system. Of course, the film does not visualize the global capitalist system
in its totality, but like the dome shot in All the President’s Men, the film’s formal
elements document the complexities of the system itself. What follows is an analysis of
three ways of visualizing capital that culminate in The Big Short’s aesthetic of


Much of The Big Short utilizes a hand-held camera, a technique that provides a
heightened sense of realism and way of seeing more often associated with documentary

filmmaking, and in particular the aesthetic movements of cinema verité (“cinema of

truth”) and direct cinema. The direct cinema and cinema verité movements are often
wrongly conflated with one another. The latter is a movement found more in the
Americas, and associated with filmmakers like Robert Drew, whereas the former is a
European movement that included figures like Jean Rouch and Edgar Morin, who
coined the term in the 1960s. While a heightened sense of realism was at the center of
both aesthetic movements, practitioners of direct cinema aimed to be non-intrusive in
their work, whereas cinema verité filmmakers more often showed the filmmaking
process and believed, as Faye Ginsburg (2013) notes, that the film would not show an
objective truth, “but the film provokes its own kind of truth, that within the film we see a
kind of truth emerging.” Scholars have often used the terms interchangeably, and
analyses of the work of Drew Associates in particular often label their work as cinema
verité. My analysis will draw on writings that blur this distinction and use the terms
interchangeably. The distinction is worth noting but is not germane to my broader
examination of the aesthetic effect of using a hand-held camera. I should briefly note
that the hand-held camera has also become commonplace in fiction films and holds a
privileged relationship to realism. For example, hand-held cameras are often found in
war films like Steven Spielberg’s World War Two drama, Saving Private Ryan (1998).
In one of the film’s first scenes, as American soldiers land on the beaches of Normandy,
a hand-held camera weaves throughout the battlefield, bringing the spectator into the
action and capturing the chaos of the invasion. Like Saving Private Ryan, The Big Short
depicts a pivotal moment in history, but one that is more cerebral than physical and
obviously less physically violent. This is what makes the cinema of Drew Associates, for
example, an apt rhetorical forebear to The Big Short. Drew’s aesthetic approach
captured the complexity of pivotal moments that were less visually striking than the
battlefield but were nevertheless critical sites of history.

In 1964, Film Quarterly published a series of essays, “Three Views on Cinema Verité,” in
an attempt to understand the characteristics of the ongoing aesthetic movement. The
first essay, by Colin Young, labels cinema-verité the “cinema of common sense,” and
notes that the term at that point had been used “loosely” by critics to describe
“documentary films which employ the technical advantages of the new light cameras

and sound recorders.” The cameras allowed for filmmakers to place themselves in the
middle of situations and to, as Young (1964, 26) writes, “represent the events of
situations as they found them — not as they expected to find them, not as they wish you
to believe they found them, but as they saw them through the camera.” One such
example is Crisis (Drew; 1963), which chronicled the fight between President John F.
Kennedy and Governor George Wallace over higher education desegregation in
Alabama. Drew said his team, as Jeanne Hall notes, became “‘part of the woodwork’ in
Kennedy’s Oval Office,” achieving an effect in which they were “flies on the wall” to the
unfolding events. However, Hall (1991, 28) writes, it is “not that cinema verité
filmmakers actually achieved such invisibility, but that all evidence of their inevitable
obtrusiveness wound up on the cutting room floor.” Hall’s distinction notes a significant
tension in direct cinema’s use of the hand-held camera. On one hand, as Hall notes, the
aim of direct cinema is to mask aspects of its own production, an effort that recalls the
classical Hollywood style of filmmaking. The hand-held camera, however, with its
shakiness and mobility, also contrasts with what is typical for the classical Hollywood
style, and inherently draws attention to the filmmaking process and the presence of the
embodied observer. With the use of the hand-held camera, direct cinema and cinema
verité aimed to reveal how the filmmaker used the camera to create a seemingly
objective space in which, as Young writes, “the audience [is] in a position to judge what
is being said.” To describe this phenomena, Drew Associates coined the term “Living
Camera,” which, as Young (1964, 27) notes, “quickly destroyed” the notion that “the
presence of the camera interferes with the audience’s chances of seeing a person behave
naturally.” Or, as Henry Breitrose (1964, 36) wrote in the same issue of Film Quarterly,
the documentary style aimed to answer the question, “what is life really like?” Thus, the
use of the hand-held camera not only provides a heightened sense of realism, but invites
the viewer to watch and discover alongside the camera. In this way, the film becomes
less about the plot of the film and more so about what it was like to be present as events
unfolded. Breitrose (37) writes:

there is the feeling of the outsider unable to gain entry into the group, who stands at
the edge, disassociated, alien, but not yet alienated. He looks, he forms compositions
in his mind’s eye, he postulates comments on what is going on, but being outside he

can’t really see what is going on. Being alien, he could not understand even if he
could see and hear and understand.

On the imaginary border between insider and outsider sits the camera, physically in the
world of the insiders, yet taking on the subjective look of the outsider, the spectator
eager to understand the intricacies of the world they have temporarily entered. This
liminality is what makes the use of the hand-held camera a fitting and effective choice
for The Big Short. Though the film follows three sets of professional financiers, the
members of each group are presented as outsiders within the system. In fact, their
outsider status is what allows them to see what those entrenched in the system cannot.
McKay told The Hollywood Reporter (Belloni, 2015) that was drew him to the story was
“that you were taken into this really elaborate, complicated world through these
characters you identified with that were outsiders, that were vulnerable, that thought
differently.” Burry is an eccentric medical doctor-turned-hedge fund-manager based in
San Jose. Baum, disgusted by the unethical practices rampant on Wall Street, is the
founder of a small, independently operated subsidiary of Morgan Stanley. Charlie Geller
(John Magaro) and Jamie Shipley (Finn Wittrock) are two young professionals who in
the film’s diegesis recently moved to New York City from Colorado and manage a
boutique firm. Their mentor is an ex-trader-turned-farmer and conspiracy theorist Ben
Rickert (Brad Pitt). Burry is the first to identify the bubble. Vennett, a manager at
Deutsche Bank, is the first to realize Burry’s analysis is correct. He then shares Burry’s
analysis with Baum so they can short the market together. And Geller and Shipley only
discover Burry’s analysis after Vennett accidentally leaves his binder in the lobby of an
investment bank. The film is structured around such intricate exchanges of knowledge
and follows each of these groups of men as they begin to unpack the machinations of the
system. Unlike a film such as The Wolf of Wall Street (Martin Scorsese; 2013), for
example, which tells a story of greed and corruption from the perspective of those
criminally exploiting the system, The Big Short operates more as a crime drama, with
the outsider-investors acting as the detectives piecing together clues to solve a case. The
spectator knows how the story will end, and perhaps may have been affected by the
crash themselves. By focusing on these exchanges and searches for knowledge — the
protagonists’ quest to see what no one else has — the film becomes less about the Great
Recession and more about the deliberately convoluted and corrupt nature of the system

itself. The hand-held camera, and its associations with direct cinema, formally mimics
the protagonist’s —and the viewer’s — pursuit of knowledge that is the film’s thematic
core. In commenting on Crisis, Young (1964, 28) writes, “The result is to dramatize the
complexity of the situation, and to clarify the nature of the crisis and the difficulty in
arriving at a correct and tactically appropriate decision.” The shakiness of the hand-held
camera and its associations with realism allow the viewer to viscerally experience and
(hopefully) better understand the complexities of navigating the inner workings of the
events depicted. Michael Lewis, the author of The Big Short, whose other books,
including The Blindside (2009) and Moneyball (2011), have been adapted into motion
pictures, said (Belloni, 2015) he thought the book would never be adapted into a film
because it was “too complicated.” The hand-held camera offers a seemingly simple
aesthetic, one that does not carry with it the sense of staging that comes with, for
example, a point-of-view shot. But as is the case in The Big Short, the simplicity of the
aesthetic heightens the complexity of the narrative. Rather than merely offering a story
of “what happened,” the film depicts history as it unfolds, and in doing so reflexively
acknowledges that a complete history of the crisis is not possible; total knowledge can
never be achieved. Though formally quite different, the use of the hand-held camera
recalls Jameson’s analysis of the dome shot in All the President’s Men, wherein a simple
shot can visualize the struggle to grasp the totality of knowledge, and, in the case of The
Big Short, capital itself. Young notes that one of the advantages of the hand-held camera
for cinema-verité filmmakers was its light weight. With the handheld camera comes an
ability to move, travel and mimic the speed at which global events transpire. The Big
Short is a film about “outsiders” not just because the protagonists are men who sit on
the intellectual margins of their field, but because several of them, as previously
mentioned, also work geographically far from Wall Street. Many of the film’s key
moments also take place outside of New York City. Baum, for example, is skeptical of
Vennett’s proposition until he sends his associates to South Florida to investigate the
local housing market. Later in the film, when the bond ratings remain strong despite the
increased number of mortgage defaults, Baum, his associates and Vennett (and also
Rickert, Gellar, and Shipley, though their paths don’t cross) attend the American
Securitization Forum in Las Vegas. While there, Baum meets with a broker who
describes the process of creating synthetic CDOs, which allow for financial institutions

to place unlimited, ever-growing bets on the fate of subprime mortgages. Shipley meets
with a woman who works for the Securities & Exchange Commission. She tells him that
the SEC does not investigate mortgage bonds. These encounters bring Baum and
Shipley to the same conclusion: the market will undoubtedly collapse. The constant in
all of these encounters is the hand-held camera, which follows the protagonists,
documenting the individuals responsible for the crash. Just as the dome shot in All the
President’s Men aimed to capture the totality of the task before Woodward and
Bernstein, the hand-held camera in The Big Short indexes the financial crisis as a series
of interconnected decisions and failings spread across the country. The crisis is not
merely a byproduct of a few “big bank” executives in suits in one city, but of the global
system. By contrast, in The Wolf of Wall Street, Toscano and Kinkle (2015, 44) note:

every time the protagonist is about to explain something about the structures of
finance he interrupts himself, signaling that what drives his debauched accumulation
is something other than the mere imperatives of the market; that its structures are
indifferent to him, that perhaps ultimately that we don’t want to know, and in the
end couldn’t even process the nature of the market in its key but abstract
determinants, so we might as well go back to the spectacle of fraudulent selling and
obscene expenditure.

While the Great Recession certainly looms over the film, The Wolf of Wall Street takes
place years earlier and does not make any explicit mention of the crisis. The film, as
Matt Zoller Seitz (2013) writes, “gives alpha male posturing the attraction-repulsion
treatment, serving up the drugging and whoring and getting-over as both spectacle and
cautionary tale.” The Big Short, however, moves beyond the spectacle of Wall Street,
and instead provides the spectator, by way of the hand-held camera, with the ability to
momentarily situate themselves within the system. Toscano and Kinkle take up the issue
of cognitive mapping in Cartographies of the Absolute, a phrase taken from the preface
to The Geopolitical Aesthetic. Toscano and Kinkle write that Jameson, in the “mid-
eighties, in the midst of Reaganite neoliberalism,” spoke of the “political need for its
elaboration in both theory and practice.” Toscano and Kinkle (2015, 7) continue:

Such an aesthetic called for the imperative elaboration of a cultural and

representational practice adequate to the highly ambitious (and, Jameson suggests,
ultimately impossible) task of depicting social space and class relations in our epoch

of late capitalism or postmodernity. … Works emerging under the banner of this

aesthetic would enable individuals and collectivities to render their place in a
capitalist world-system intelligible…

The itinerant hand-held camera in The Big Short achieves such an aesthetic, one that
traces a cognitive map of capital by visualizing the ways in which the failings of the
housing market transcended geographic boundaries and are thus indicative of a broken
system that remains today. The Big Short is notable in that it opts for a substantive
examination of the market structure, which, as Toscano and Kinkle noted above, is
absent from films like The Wolf of Wall Street. Depicting the totality of capital (7) “poses
an aesthetic problem, in the sense of demanding ways of representing the complex and
dynamic relations … of making the invisible visible.” The Great Recession was a crisis of
liquidity, and the hand-held camera, with its fluidity, contrasts with the existing market
structure; it visualizes the failure. The commodity as Marx describes it is the byproduct
of forces that cannot be grasped or seen; it is merely a sliver of capital. The hand-held
camera, by placing the spectator within the system itself and documenting only one
sliver of history, reflexivity acknowledges its own aesthetic insufficiently, and thus is
well-suited to visualize that which cannot be visualized: capital in its totality. The hand-
held camera also, by way of geographical and physical movement, mimics the “complex
and dynamic” relationships underpinning capital, and the restlessness of the system
itself. As Jameson notes, a complete representation of the system would be impossible,
and The Big Short neither accomplishes nor aims to achieve such a depiction. Instead,
as I have tried to demonstrate, the hand-held camera brings the spectator into the
narrative, providing a visceral experience wherein the navigation of the system and its
complexities provide an incomplete yet effective visualization of the inner machinations
of capital. The hand-held camera demands an active spectator, but it does not make
them complicit in the goings on of the narrative. What follows will be two formal choices
that extend the failings of capital to the spectators themselves.


The diegesis of The Big Short is broken by brief sequences of found footage: images of
sporting events, concerts, interviews, and news footage. The use of found footage recalls

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