Hollywood's approach to the big bad world of Wall St has tended to demonise the greed and excess of amoral bankers. Think Gordon Gekko in Wall Street or Jordan Belfort in the more recent Wolf of Wall Street. But Adam McKay's The Big Short, out in cinemas this week, puts the entire system of high finance in the cross hairs.
It's the story of how a handful of fund managers, bedroom traders and a barefoot finance guru from California bet against middle America repaying their home loans and the bankers who securitised the mortgages.
The villains, to the extent there are any, are the faceless mass of Wall St, selling junk financial instruments tied to bad mortgages which never should have been given in the first place. The ratings agencies who rubber stamped the soundness of these financial products also face a drubbing. So, too, do the regulators, who do little before the financial crisis and little to punish anyone afterwards.
The Big Short's strength is using comedy and celebrity cameos to explain complex financial products and sound the alarm over their return to the markets. It's an effective method of mixing entertainment and education. The film's flaw, however, is that in blaming the many for their role in the GFC, the most culpable participants escape the censure they deserve.
Credit Rating: BBB+
There are no heroes in The Big Short.
The film naturally draws you towards rooting for the smart fund managers who - during pre-GFC good times - looked through the hype and identified the rot in US mortgage-backed securities that resulted in the system's eventual collapse.
But at the end of the day, all of the protagonists are morally compromised.
By shorting collateralised debt obligation (CDO) securities, the clued-up investors were placing huge bets against the US housing market and the livelihoods of millions of Americans.
This point is hammered home when jaded former banker Ben Rickert, played by Brad Pitt, chastises a couple of young fund managers for carrying out an impromptu dance in a Las Vegas casino when they realise how much money they stand to make from their short positions.
The Big Short is essentially about truth and the folly of those in the lead-up to the collapse who were too greedy, absent-minded or arrogant to see it.
The film's greatest accomplishment is perhaps its use of entertaining, light-hearted vignettes to effectively explain complex financial instruments.
Credit rating: A-
The Big Short
is a sharp reminder that markets, even at the top end of town, have an unhealthy reliance on fashions and flawed-but-common wisdoms. Turning against the crowd is never popular - no loser stands out if everyone's losing - but sometimes there's opportunities in mislabelling.
The film shows bundles of bonds rated triple AAA being comprised solely of junk, and People's "sexiest man alive" Brad Pitt disguised by an unkempt beard, surgical mask and thick glasses. In fact, the prettiest people in the film are a pair of Miami brokers who boast of selling multiple investment properties to strippers who don't understand their mortgages.
While the fallout may not be pretty, it's important to see the common wisdom of property being a sure bet because of unending capital gains can get rudely popped.
Credit rating: AA-
My classic moment in The Big Short is when anti-hero Michael Baum (played by Steve Carrell) warns "we live in an era of fraud in America ... not just banking, but government, religion even baseball".
Baum (he's a hedge fund manager after all) is blessed with a sufficiently nuanced morality to be able to warn peers that it is "average people who are going to be the ones to pay for this all" while he is on the verge of realising his own 'big short' of the collapsing CDO market. Lucky guy.
The bankers are easy villains.
What disquiets is that no-one else was prepared to blow the whistle.
This was highlighted through glancing vignettes: the SEC female regulator who was intent on getting some Wall St 'action' (and a higher paying job) rather than acting on warnings the market was a gigantic fraud; the ratings agency which wouldn't put out honest ratings because the banks paid their bills and the journalist who wouldn't risk compromising his prime contacts by asking serious questions.
The movie didn't address the big fundamental: the Federal Reserve's role in priming the American housing market through cheap credit.
And the utter failure of Alan Greenspan to see through the sham.
One for the sequel perhaps?
Credit Rating: BBB+ (negative watch)