By Jason A. Hill
Inside Job, USA, 2010
Directed by Charles Ferguson
The financial crisis has had broad coverage in the media over the past two years, but in contrast to its impact there have been fewer documentaries covering its aftermath compared to the political and war documentaries during the George W. Bush era. The lack of more prominent financial crisis documentaries is probably due to the subject being such an un-sexy and difficult topic to dramatize. Michael Moore, king of drama in docs, gave the economy a whack with his Capitalism: A Love Story (2009), a punchless and overreaching attack on capitalism that turned out to be pretty nominal on drama.
It proved that this story is just that difficult to make appealing to a broad American public, but too important to ignore. The story of the financial meltdown is as broad – involving the entire world’s economy – and as complicated – dealing with complex banking and trading laws – as ever there was for a documentary, but director Charles Ferguson handles the topic without losing focus and consistently stays on message. The film achieves something very difficult in most narrative films, let alone documentaries, which is boiling the underlying problem down to one simple idea: greed is not good. (Sorry, Gordon Gekko).
“This film attempts to provide a comprehensive portrayal of an extremely important and timely subject: the worst financial crisis since the Depression, which continues to haunt us via Europe’s debt problems and global financial instability. It was a completely avoidable crisis; indeed, for 40 years after the reforms following the Great Depression, the United States did not have a single financial crisis. However, the progressive deregulation of the financial sector since the 1980s gave rise to an increasingly criminal industry, whose ‘innovations’ have produced a succession of financial crises. Each crisis has been worse than the last; and yet, due to the industry’s increasing wealth and power, each crisis has seen few people go to prison. In the case of this crisis, nobody has gone to prison, despite fraud that caused trillions of dollars in losses. I hope that the film, in less than two hours, will enable everyone to understand the fundamental nature and causes of this problem.”
— Charles Ferguson, director of Inside Job
The film struggles to get away from the talking head syndrome that sucks the life out of many documentaries, yet it does so unapologetically, focusing us in on the places this crisis has affected the most. The opening salvo is in Iceland, where all economic conditions seem to be working just fine until the decision of a few top bankers deregulates the banking system and all hell ensues. This was an illustration on a smaller level of what happened in the US and the rest of the world. Ferguson spares us the complex details of interconnectedness between banks across the globe until he’s made his point about why a deregulated bank is so dangerous. We then go on a ride through the history of the banking system and the history of regulation. Over the years and through many governments, the system of banking regulation was taken apart piece by piece. We end up in 2008 with a deregulated banking system sitting on top of a housing bubble, and by now we understand what those things mean. No president from Reagan to Obama is spared responsibility. Ferguson points the finger of complicity and ineptitude at those who deregulated the banking system, at the government and the lobbyists keeping it in place today.
The film does a great job of laying out why someone being put in a home they can’t afford was so tempting to a bank and so alarming to the economy. It also does not shy away from even the most complicated of subjects involved with the financial crisis, such as CBOs and Credit Default Swaps, boldly explaining what they are and what they meant in the financial meltdown with a series of examples and diagrams that are simple enough to understand.
The film also dispels some major myths about the financial crisis, including one of the most used paradigms: “no one saw this coming.” Not only did people see it coming, but some people were explicitly warned by several economic experts interviewed in the film. Many top economists such as Larry Summers, Alan Greenspan, Ben Bernanke, Timothy Geithner, and Henry Paulson all declined to be interviewed, and their silence is deafening.
Ferguson also takes a shot at the academic institutions who consistently praise deregulation as an ideological line in the sand for economic theory. He points out that many of the the top economic schools become little more than paid cheerleaders for the banks who hammer the point of deregulation to no end.
In the end the film points to a political solution in which people need to take notice and understand that in order to solve this problem, there needs to be a bipartisan agreement to regulate the banking system responsibly. At one point in the film a banker tells an economist, “You have to save us from ourselves.” As hopeless as that sounds, I give Ferguson credit for so clearly outlining a problem that gives substance to many people’s pain and rage.
Jason A. Hill is the Founder, Owner and Editor In Chief of Movies I Didn’t Get.com. He is a film critic and writer of articles and film reviews covering a variety of genres and film news that have been syndicated to many sites in the film blogosphere. He specializes in independent film in the US and Asia.
For more information please contact Jason at JasonAHill@MoviesIDidn’tGet.com.