But it’s also a question that’s provided fuel for some of the most praised — and most devastating — films of the last decade. And understanding even some of what triggered the meltdown can help citizens and taxpayers more carefully evaluate what politicians and policy-makers champion in the future.
Here are five films worth watching that help bring the causes and effects of the crisis to life.
The Queen of Versailles (2012)
Jackie and David Siegel, the owners of Westgate Resorts, were in the process of building a massive home — which they called Versailles — on the outskirts of Orlando when the financial crisis was dawning. The Queen of Versailles documents what happened after Siegel’s business hit the skids, and shows the kind of opulence and downfall that surrounded the catastrophe.
99 Homes (2014)
Andrew Garfield plays a young Floridian father who’s evicted from his home after being unable to make his mortgage payments. Desperate to save his home and support his family, he goes to work for the man who evicted him (played by Michael Shannon). It’s a strong piece of storytelling, set among some of the groups of people who were most affected by the crisis, and it illuminates just how devastatingly the crisis was an inversion of the American dream.
The Big Short (2015)
Based on Michael Lewis’s book of the same name (and winner of the Best Adapted Screenplay Oscar), The Big Short is a seething comedy with an unhappy ending that tracks some of the figures who saw the crisis coming and bet against it. Brad Pitt, Christian Bale, Steve Carell, and Ryan Gosling star in the film, which feels like an angry, exhilarating, mad dash right off the edge of a cliff and into an abyss.
Inside Job (2010)
Inside Job took home the 2011 Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature, and small wonder: Praised by critics at its Cannes debut, the well-researched film lucidly takes audiences through the ways that changes in both policy and banking practices led to the economic catastrophe. Narrated by Matt Damon, it’s an essential primer to not just this crisis, but the ways in which decisions in one arena (in this case, government and policy) can cause problems in another.
Margin Call (2011)
Set on the night before the big crisis broke, Margin Call follows a gaggle of traders (played by, among others, Paul Bettany, Kevin Spacey, Demi Moore, and Zachary Quinto) through a taut and sleepless 24 hours as they try to contain the damage after an analyst discovers information that is likely to ruin their firm, and possibly the whole economy. It’s not a showy film — it’s almost slow in places — but the sense of mounting dread and inevitability is a close approximation of what really happened in many firms, and its ending is positively devastating.