This is the documentary for anyone who recently woke up to their morning news program of choice squawking about the still-dismal unemployment rate, the still-cratering housing market, the still-unstoppable home-foreclosure rate, and wondered, “How the fuck did we get here?” Quicker than combing financial news archives and less confusing than Michael Lewis’s non-fiction bestseller The Big Short, in just two hours, Inside Job tells us (literally, in the first of five chapter titles) “How We Got Here.”
I could (and the film does) go into the rather complicated financial mechanisms to blame, like credit default swaps, derivatives, subprime mortgages, and several other now-toxic terms, but, according to Inside Job, they’re just the details in a larger, scarier plot. Through dozens of in-screen interviews with some of the biggest players in international finance and governance, Inside Job posits that the U.S. deliberately, or at least tacitly, allowed special interests to hijack financial regulation, which led to many short-term gain decisions resulting in the long-term financial nightmare millions across the globe now face.
Now, right here you might be saying, “This sounds like another biased knock against GOP leaders,” and director Charles Ferguson’s Bush-bashing 2007 Iraq War doc No End In Sight probably doesn’t help avoid that presumption. Yet one of Inside Job’s strongest points is that, though financial deregulation may have started under Reagan in the 1980s, the Clinton administration happily escalated the issue by ignoring very early warnings from the Commodity Futures Trading Commission and by advocating the passage of a bill that actually banned regulation of those dirty derivatives. Given the chance, President Barack Obama refused to clean out the henhouse, so to speak, as we still (at least until 2011) have banking buddies in top government positions.
Ferguson gives example after example of former bank CEOs taking over top dog positions in government, from the Securities and Exchange Commission, to the Federal Reserve, to the Secretary of the Treasury. Giddily, the film then connects the dots between these financial sector advocates and government inaction in the face of several warnings, mini-recessions, and even pleas from other countries. If Americans didn’t already know that our crisis plunged economies across the globe into disarray thanks to the near failure of multinational financial corporations like Lehman Brothers, Inside Job provides plenty of images of empty Chinese sweatshops and incredulous officials from France to Singapore to complement the sight of tent cities, empty houses, and frustrated watchdogs stateside.
Unlike the U.S. government, Ferguson isn’t afraid to make errant or ignorant officials squirm, which he does through his off-screen questioning in several scenes. The film holds a special contempt for the business school academics who presume the air of objectivity while making a mint as consultants for various financial firms.
While jam-packed with facts, the film occasionally stumbles in its rush to hold accountable the heads of Lehman Brothers, Bear Stearns, J.P. Morgan etc … etc … While it’s entertaining to detail the excesses promoted by Wall Street (paying for hookers on the company card, getting the same high from cocaine as from making a bunch of money) it doesn’t do much for the film’s thesis. Similarly, while the point that academics ought to disclose their side work in the financial sector is valid and eye-opening, its associated idea, that big business has infiltrated academia is less scintillating. For one thing: duh. For another, people who seek advanced degrees aren’t mouth breathers to be manipulated that easily, even if they are going to business school.
Perhaps the biggest fumble in Inside Job’s mainly well-played game, is the bleak finale, titled “Where We Are Now.” Engineered to inspire viewers to rise up and fight, courtesy of Matt Damon’s cheesy narration and a shot of, kid you not, the Statue of Liberty, the filmmakers breezily mention that U.S. society is more “unequal” then ever before. Once again, the country is chastised for not demanding more accountability for the investment bankers and CEOs who walked away with billions while Joe Schmoe moved into a goddamned tent. But the one person who gets away from Inside Job without a bit of reprimand is you, me, and everyone else who actually believed you could get something for nothing. •
Dir. Charles Ferguson; writ. Chad Beck, Adam Bolt; feat. Matt Damon (narration) PG-13