Jon Bailes considers whether big screen hits such as The Big Short and The Laundromat actually leave viewers inspired to act for political change or informed but pessimistic.
At the end of The Laundromat, Steven Soderberg’s 2019 quirky drama about international tax avoidance, an exasperated Meryl Streep steps out of character to address the viewer directly.
She quotes from the manifesto of ‘John Doe’, the anonymous whistleblower who leaked the Panama Papers in 2016, which unmasked the global elites hiding their wealth in offshore funds. She outlines systemic injustices, the lack of accountability and government complicity. She then concludes that the US needs to reform its political campaign financing rules and shifts her stance to mimic the statue of liberty.
Few progressively-minded individuals could disagree with a call to regulate America’s billionaire-friendly political funding structures. But, after the film’s revelations about the depths of corruption in finance and its links to politics, this feels like an oddly singular and impotent demand. It also diverts from Doe’s original message, spelled out in the title of his manifesto The Revolution Will Be Digitised – a call for action that suggests a potential method to achieve change. Streep’s speech replaces such notions with vague appeals for reform through old institutions.
When Hollywood confronts the structural problems of finance capitalism, it still can’t begin to suggest a politics of change. The Laundromat is one of a series of post-bailout movies that adopt a similar outlook. In its slick and witty narrative style, it takes its biggest cues from Adam McKay’s 2015 Oscar winner The Big Short, which follows key players in the financial crash of 2007-2008. But, there’s also a common thread between these and more straight-faced stockbroker dramas such as 2011’s Margin Call.
These are films that successfully relay complex realities, unveiling systemic contradictions in modern economies. They go beyond the political messaging in much of Hollywood’s output, with its Oscar-bait moral history lessons or conspiracy tales about individual bad apples. In Margin Call and The Big Short particularly, the protagonists aren’t monsters – they are merely actors within a broken machine. And the machine as such, or at least it’s current form – casino capitalism, disaster capitalism, neoliberalism – is called into question.
Yet, for all the hard truths they deliver, politically, these films seem geared to cementing our sense of disempowerment and pessimism. Their message is that things are bad and it’s not fair, but there’s not much we can do about it. Most of all, they speak to cynical realists and defeatists, confirming suspicions that, even when neoliberalism is wrong, it’s also right: there is no alternative.
These reality tales invariably end at the same juncture, explaining that nothing has changed and the system has rewarded – not punished – those who were instrumental in causing financial chaos and exacerbating inequality. Of course, it’s all true, but it’s the form of delivery that matters.
Looking up from ‘below’ makes an alternate solution seem urgent, even if it’s not clear what it is or how to make it happen.
When The Big Short finally reaches the point in the story where the economy collapses, it first cheekily misdirects us, explaining that everyone responsible was jailed, that the banks were broken up, and so on – before returning to the tragic real ending. This isn’t so much as a trick but a joke that reaffirms what we already believed about how rigged and unfixable the system is. In momentarily entertaining the possibility of an alternate reality, it shows how ridiculous it seems.
Less Sophistication, More Emotion
One way of looking at these films is to say that they feel like very middle-class perspectives, for which hand-wringing and being right is often good enough.
They decry the fact that people lost their jobs and their homes due to financial corruption, but don’t translate statistical injustice into a fight for survival or immediate need for change. Missing from their cold facts is the public anger that’s grown in the last decade and its frantic desire for new political direction.
When Hollywood films do engage with the financial crisis from a more working-class view, pessimism is still hard to avoid.
In Ramin Bahrani’s 2014 movie 99 Homes, a young man is evicted from his family home after the bank forecloses. He ends up working for the real estate agent who threw him out, performing evictions himself so he can earn enough to buy his house back. In Lorene Scafaria’s Hustlers, released last year, a young woman joins with a group of her fellow strippers to criminally exploit their wealthy city clients after the recession hits, only to find that they don’t enjoy the legal protections that those at the top are used to.
These films link poverty in America to the impact of the financial crisis in a less sophisticated and more emotional way than the big insider stories. They won’t give us a full working knowledge of shorting, toxic mortgages and tax havens, and their marginalised characters struggle to comprehend their situations. But, unlike those other films, looking up from ‘below’ makes an alternate solution seem urgent, even if it’s not clear what it is or how to make it happen.
99 Homes expresses this sense with a refusal, as the main character decides he can no longer take part in evictions. He stops playing the game of competing for property and status. Hustlers meanwhile offers a message about not betraying friendship bonds and sticking together regardless of short-term costs. The moral choices in these scenarios might seem naively sentimental – a weakness that those in the dog-eat-dog real world would pounce on. But, when normality is ruthless exploitation, cynical shrugs or ineffective complaining, something has to break the cycle.
These films offer no solutions, reveal no cracks in the power structure, conceive of no revolutions, digital or otherwise. But they resist hard-nosed cynicism by showing it as a luxury that few can afford. And, in a mainstream movie world which is not ready, willing or able to imagine change, the implication that we might refuse and collaborate against the system feels more politically powerful than many of the industry’s deeper, smarter social critiques.