This article can also be read in The Amherst Student.
“We’re as mad as hell, and we’re not going to take it anymore.” That seems to be the rallying cry of American documentary filmmakers these days. Only a few weeks after Davis Guggenheim released his clearly outraged and passionate plea for education reform in “Waiting for ‘Superman,’” documentarian Charles Ferguson gives us “Inside Job,” a stinging chronicle of the outrages of the 2008 global financial crisis and the continuing recession. Like Guggenheim, Ferguson takes an incredibly complex, daunting subject and seeks to break it down in an accessible fashion. For the past two years, the 24-hour shouting match that is network news has been screaming in our ear about subprime loans, collateralized debt obligations, bailouts, bonuses, foreclosures, unemployment, recession, depression and more. Here, Ferguson takes a step back, trying to explain to the lay audience just what is going on and how we have gotten here.
And he does so effectively, to a point. Ferguson flashes graphs, dives into archived footage of Congressional hearings and trots out a never-ending parade of talking heads to assure us that everyone on Wall Street is a bastard. There is no fancy camera work, no stylistic flourishes here; if it weren’t for the dulcet tones of Matt Damon narrating our way through the corporate food chain and a few (wholly unnecessary) sweeping shots of the Icelandic landscape, there is little to distinguish the film from something you’d see on PBS. This is not a criticism, mind you. The film’s straightforward manner allows us to keep to the task at hand: namely, sifting our way through the impenetrable gobbledygook of economic jargon to figure out just what exactly happened to our savings.
Having never taken an economics course in my life, I will readily admit there were still points at which I wanted to crawl back into bed with my Norton Shakespeare and retreat into a world that my poor humanities-oriented brain could comprehend. I still have no clue what a derivative is, and so some of the charts and graphs intended to shock me ended up just being rather confounding: “See this bar? It used to be this big. Now it’s much bigger. THIS IS A TRAVESTY!!” But Ferguson’s effort is a valiant one, and even philistines like me will emerge with at least a basic grasp on the concepts of deregulation and predatory lending that “Inside Job” presents as the main culprits of the crisis.
While educating the populace on a critical economic and political issue such as this is certainly an admirable goal, it’s not the only point on Ferguson’s agenda. In the end, Ferguson doesn’t care so much if we understand the intricacies of an international financial collapse, so long as we know whom to blame for it. The filmmaker’s contempt for just about everyone on Wall Street and in Washington is clearly evident. As he interviews lobbyists, former economics officials and academics who supported financial institutions with their “expert” advice (for a modest price, of course), Ferguson often gets openly hostile, quickly interrupting and challenging what he considers to be unsatisfactory answers. It’s little surprise that all of Ferguson’s top targets (mostly Federal Reserve and Treasury officials like Alan Greenspan, Ben Bernanke, Larry Summers and Timothy Geithner) all declined to speak with the director.
These “gotcha” moments, while certainly on one level entertaining and cruelly satisfying, leave the viewer with what feels like an awfully constructed experience. “Inside Job” could’ve been an extraordinary opportunity to peek directly into the minds of these apparent villains through their own words: what WERE they thinking? Were they selfish liars and cheats? Well-intentioned but simply misguided? Just plain clueless? We may never be able to decide for ourselves, because Ferguson is all-too-prepared to take the accusatory approach.
Instead, to get into the mindset of pre-2008 Wall Street, we must mostly rely on the words of third-party experts, including a therapist, foreign treasury officials, activists, academics that share Ferguson’s views and, of course, Eliot Spitzer (when did he suddenly start popping up everywhere?). And they are indeed extremely convincing, damning words. The therapist in particular paints a shocking portrait of financial executives as a bunch of drug-addled, spoiled, impulsive risk-takers with little regard for the vast consequences of their decisions. Ferguson points to a fascinating study in which researchers monitored the brain activity of several subjects as they participated in a Wall Street-esque stock exchange simulation: they found that when the subjects made large financial gains, the same part of their brain was stimulated as that which is affected by cocaine. Without proper regulations in place, it is easy to see how these executives’ money-making schemes could quickly spiral out of control.
Watching “Inside Job,” I was reminded somewhat of “In the Loop,” one of my favorite films of 2009, a scathingly witty British satire on the lead-up to the Iraq War. That film posited that the world was plunged headlong into crisis by a handful of completely self-absorbed individuals, surrounded by people who were either a) too concerned with covering their own butts to speak up, or b) had no idea what they were doing (or, for that matter, c) both). Ferguson desires to say something similar, but the difference is that this is real. Someone should be held responsible. It is in fact in the film’s closing moments that the filmmaker makes his most persuasive and reasonable point: the people who were in charge before the financial crisis are, for the most part, still in power today. For all of President Obama’s campaigning on the promise of change, the officials who helped cultivate an atmosphere of deregulation and unaccountability in the Bush years (including Summers, Bernanke and Geithner) are still this administration’s chief economic advisors. What does it take to make America learn from its mistakes?
Now playing in limited release.
Verdict: 3 out of 4 stars