These 7 Movies Tell the Real Story Behind the Financial Crisis
The movie The Big Short opened in theaters nationwide Dec. 23, and it is the latest example of a Hollywood production laying the blame for the 2008 financial crisis squarely at the feet of Wall Street.
Adapted from the 2010 Michael Lewis book of the same name, the film from Viacom’s (VIA) Paramount Pictures follows a group of rogue investors who predicted the housing and credit bubble and made money betting against the bubble ahead of the nation’s economic collapse.
So far, the movie has been praised by critics for its ability to infuse its unwieldy subject matter with levity and flash. The Big Short is even picking up Oscar buzz, thanks to its clever handling of a tough subject and a star-studded cast that includes Brad Pitt, Christian Bale, Ryan Gosling, and Steve Carell. (Though Fortune‘s Chris Matthews argued the film, and the book it is based on, could improve by expanding their focus beyond just the U.S. financial system.)
The film, from director Adam McKay (Anchorman, Step Brothers), also does not pull punches when it comes to whom its creators feel should be held responsible for the economic collapse. Vulture called The Big Short “The Ultimate Feel-Furious Movie About Wall Street” and, like the book it’s based on, the movie clearly pins the blame for the financial crisis on greedy bankers. And, it’s certainly not the first film to do just that, though some took a more balanced approach while others covered the collapse from unique angles. Here are six more films (features and documentaries) that have tackled the 2008 financial crisis to varying results:
1. Too Big to Fail
Perhaps the most balanced Hollywood portrayal of the bankers and regulators behind the scenes of the financial crisis is 2011's Too Big to Fail. Time Warner’s (TWX) HBO produced this adaptation of the Andrew Ross Sorkin book, which covers the events of the 2008 financial crisis and follows the Wall Street titans who met behind closed doors with regulators to negotiate the federal bailout of the financial industry. HBO enlisted a parade of stars to inhabit the roles of banking and investment bigwigs such as Warren Buffett and JPMorgan (JPM) CEO Jamie Dimon as well as then-Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson and Fed chair Ben Bernanke. And, the results were pretty decent, with Fortune’s Pattie Sellers noting at the time of the movie’s debut that actor Paul Giamatti “plays Bernanke beautifully” while Matthew Modine imbued his portrayal of former Merrill Lynch CEO John Thain “with just the right dose of stiffness and selfishness.”
2. Inside Job
This 2010 documentary has been lauded as one of the first in its form to tackle the cumbersome subject of the 2008 financial collapse and distill it into something easily digested. The result is a Matt Damon-narrated doc that walks viewers through topics such as the development of extreme consolidated power on Wall Street and the evolution of questionable banking practices that helped create the housing bubble, all leading up to federal regulators’ $700 billion bailout that helped keep most big banks afloat. Make no mistake, Inside Job is a scathing indictment of the U.S. financial industry that won over critics, earning director Charles Ferguson an Academy Award for the year’s best documentary. In his acceptance speech (and, later, in an interview with Fortune) Ferguson lamented that no financial executives had gone to jail in the wake of the financial crisis.
3. Capitalism: A Love Story
Before Inside Job, though, there was this entry from Academy Award-winning documentarian, and liberal firebrand, Michael Moore. Released in 2009, Capitalism: A Love Story did not receive quite as much critical acclaim as other Moore films, with some critics complaining that the movie at times over-simplified aspects of the U.S. financial system and the market collapse to better serve the purpose of entertainment. Regardless, the movie must have been reasonably entertaining as it collected more than $17 million in global box office receipts—a solid haul for any political documentary and more than double what Inside Job would earn a year later.
4. Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps
In 2010, director Oliver Stone delivered a follow-up to Wall Street, his 1987 film that spawned Gordon Gekko, the Michael Douglas character who became the standard for slimy caricatures of 1980s excess, helped by his infamous (and often misquoted) line “Greed … is good.” 2oth Century Fox's (FOX) Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps brings back Gekko as a somewhat more sympathetic character who attempts to warn his former peers about the economic collapse before it hits and then spends much of the movie trying to reunite with his estranged daughter. The movie uses the financial crisis as a plot device, particularly the collapse of a fictional white-shoe investment bank. The follow-up earned mixed reviews but went on to earn $134 million globally, compared to an inflation-adjusted haul of roughly $90 million for the original, according to Box Office Mojo.
5. Margin Call
Another fictional take on the financial crisis, 2011’s Margin Call is the rare “financial thriller” that takes place over a frenzied 36-hour window in which a group of Wall Street investment bankers scramble to protect their nameless employer on the eve of the housing market’s collapse. The film from Oscar-nominated director J.C. Chandor delves deeply into the subject of banks’ reckless overvaluation of mortgage-back securities, with the film’s fictional bankers looking to quickly dump those assets once it became clear that they were toxic. Margin Call was well-received by critics, receiving an 88% rating on Rotten Tomatoes, though the low-budget film made only about $19.5 million at the worldwide box office (including just over $5 million domestically) for parent company Lionsgate (LGF).
6. The Queen of Versailles
This is ostensibly a feature-length reality show about a wealthy Florida family’s disastrous (and tacky) attempt to build a 90,000-square-foot palace modeled after the onetime home of France’s monarchy. But, this rebuke of real estate excess is also a unique portrait of a once wealthy family struggling to navigate the economic collapse. The Siegels’ timeshare company, Westgate Resorts, had soared on the back of the housing bubble for years and the market’s collapse left the family scrambling to fund their lavish lifestyle. The documentary follows them as construction on the giant home is halted and the family is forced to lay off staff and slash their excessive spending in order to avoid foreclosure on the unfinished monstrosity.