FILMS WORTH WATCHING by Robert Alstead
The face of the financial crisis has taken many forms, from people lining up outside banks desperate to get at their savings to the dilapidation of newly built suburban homes that have been foreclosed on. Inside Job, a punch-packing documentary by Charles Ferguson, the director who previously picked through the wreckage of US Iraq policy in No End in Sight, goes straight to the top. It homes in on the architects of the unfinished credit crisis and asks how such a precarious financial edifice came into being and why its collapse reverberated around the world causing widespread grief and mayhem.
Inside Job is not really an exposé since many of the details of the financial debacle have been drip-fed to us over the years in the media and even in a few quick-out-of-the-stalls documentaries. Yet it feels like an exposé partly because it offers a uniquely succinct explanation of the events that led to what economist Nouriel Roubini calls “a cardiac arrest of the general financial system” in September 2008. But more importantly, director Charles Ferguson shows a willingness to challenge the ruling elite in a way that you rarely see in run-of-the-mill news reports.
Considering there are many talking heads, this is a gripping shocker of a story, involving shady deals, backhanders, unfettered greed, mass delusion and mind-boggling amounts of money. It’s also put together in an elegant package, from a snappy opening montage set to Peter Gabriel’s Big Time to the slick cinematography of the final credits with its aerial shots of Manhattan. Matt Damon’s jargon-free narration and user-friendly graphics also help.
Inside Job starts in Iceland where flashy and unscrupulous private bankers managed to bankrupt a whole country. It goes on to explain how a steady erosion of US market regulation, going back to the Reagan era, got us into the deep doo-doo. The object of Ferguson’s carefully channelled ire is not so much the system, but the men who pushed it to the breaking point and walked away from the mess with billions in their pockets.
Here, Ferguson’s pointed interview style – and the merciless editing of those interviews – comes into its own. Yet not all are tarred with the same brush. The likes of billionaire financier George Soros and former Chairman of the Federal Reserve Paul Volcker (glass of scotch in hand) provide sage analysis. The disgraced Eliot Spitzer, who built a gleaming career fighting Wall Street crime until the prostitution scandal broke in 2008, is given a fair shake; a Manhattan madam tells us bankers were using her high-end brothel on the company payroll. It was common knowledge, but the law turned a blind eye.
But Ferguson pounces on evasion. Fred Mishkin, who quit as Governor of the Fed at the height of the crisis to edit a textbook, comes across as a bumbling twit. Elsewhere, Ferguson, who is only heard but not seen, stops former Bush advisor David McCormick in his tracks with a “You can’t be serious” and McCormick demands the camera be turned off. When Ferguson pushes Glenn Hubbard, the Dean of Columbia Business School, the former Bush chief economic adviser fixes him with an icy glare and tells him, “You have three more minutes. Give it your best shot.”
Academia, like government, is shown to have been bought out. We learn that Mishkin and UK economist Richard Portes, for example, accepted six-figure fees for glowing reports that led to further de-regulation of the Icelandic financial system.
Many of the key targets of Ferguson’s ire – Larry Summers, Hank Paulson, Alan Greenspan, Ben Bernanke, the heads of ratings agencies and investment banks – were sly enough to refuse interviews, which is a pity, but not damaging to the film. There’s sufficient info on the public record and insiders’ anecdotes to reveal their role in the crisis.
Having laid out a catalogue of horrors, the film notes that, under Obama, it’s “business as usual.” As Roubini points out, there’s been no investigation into the crisis “because then you’ll find the culprits.” Hopefully, Inside Job will change that.
Robert Alstead made the Vancouver documentary You Never
Bike Alone. www.youneverbikealone.com.
He writes at www.2020Vancouver.com.