Saturday, March 5, 2011

Inside Job Movie Review

Mr. Ethics himself, Elliot Spitzer is one of those interviewed who speaks out against deregulation and the shady dealings of financial executives.
When Charles Ferguson won the Best Documentary Feature Oscar for his film Inside Job, he deplored the fact that not a single financial executive has gone to jail for the financial catastrophe caused by the “fraud” they committed. Before he made that statement, I would have been willing to accept Inside Job as an expose of the financial industry and what caused the complete and total meltdown of the world financial system. That he believes someone should go to jail for what happened suggests his film is actually an indictment seeking blood.

Yes, the signs are there that Ferguson has an agenda, that he’s looking to bring down the bigwigs, most of whom refused to participate in the film. But what I would like to ask Ferguson is, “Who do you think should be in jail and what exactly should the charges be?” To be fair, this point is never raised in the film itself. Being angry about a terrible global financial crisis that was the result of greed (on the part of a lot more than financial executives, I might add) is justified, and demanding they lose their jobs and not receive their bonuses would be a good start to both punishing them and alleviating the public animosity. But fraud is a serious charge and Ferguson never makes the case in his film that anything illegal was done.

In fact he goes out of his way to present the full background and lead up to the causes of the crisis, including massive deregulation that started with the Reagan administration and continued through the Clinton presidency. It was exactly this series of deregulatory steps that made it legal for financial executives to engage in deals, loans and mortgages that were bad.

As extensive as Ferguson’s research and scope is (he interviews or tries to interview nearly every major player in financial markets from the Fed Chair and government regulators to journalists), his focus is somewhat limited. Inside Job wants to pretend that the crisis was solely the responsibility of government officials and financial executives, without any consideration for individuals who took on loans and mortgages that they simply couldn’t afford. There’s hardly a single person who isn’t in some way responsible. Everyone wanted a taste of the fabulous wealth being created by what was essentially a bubble – the superficial creation of wealth with very little support.

What the film does very well is break down in layman’s terms the ins and outs of the crisis. Financial markets are incredibly complex and I’m not even sure the top players fully grasp the implications of their actions, but Ferguson distills the complexity to bite-size chunks that we can comprehend quickly enough to get through the troves of information he provides in less than two hours.

Most of the top players in finance and government declined to be interviewed for the film. The text cards stating the various people who declined an interview generally follow some kind of damning accusation against the individual in question. This has the effect of making us believe their refusal was a kind of “taking the fifth” approach to avoid any self-incrimination. What Ferguson doesn’t tell us and what we’ll never know (although it’s certainly not his job to do so) is why these various guys didn’t want to take part in this film. If I had to venture a guess I would say in most cases it’s because these are some very busy individuals who don’t always have the time to be interviewed by film makers. Think about how many interview requests someone like Alan Greenspan or Ben Bernanke gets in a year. Perhaps some were afraid when Ferguson told them he was making a documentary on the financial crisis that he was another Michael Moore who might embarrass them on camera. It’s unfortunate really because I’m sure they have some very interesting things to say in defense of their actions.

Those who were interviewed are mainly the people who saw warning signs and tried to do something to avert the crisis. And the warning signs were there. But as Frederic Mishkin, a former Federal Reserve Board Governor, says responding to an accusation that they didn’t look into the impending doom after a report warning them of what was coming, it’s very easy to say that you can find something…But then Ferguson cuts away and doesn’t allow Mishkin to finish. He uses this technique several times and I think it makes part of his film suspect.

One of the major accusations Ferguson makes is with regard to the kind of incestuous nature of the financial industry. People working in the public sector who write reports and regulations often find themselves in handsomely paid jobs in the private sector. The suggestion is that there must be some kind of quid pro quo or wrongdoing inherent in this practice. Perhaps there is in some cases, but this assumption fails to take into account that the number of people qualified to do these various jobs is somewhat limited. Of course the same guys who run Goldman Sachs and Lehman Brothers and AIG would also be prime candidates for jobs in the Fed or at Treasury. Would Ferguson have preferred that President Bush appoint people without experience?

One particularly pointed interview is with Glenn Hubbard, who served as an advisor to President Bush and is now the Dean of Columbia Business School. Ferguson includes footage of Hubbard losing his cool at some probing questions delving into his non-disclosed consulting jobs, stating at one point, “This is not a deposition. I was polite enough to give you my time.” Again, this makes Hubbard look guilty, and perhaps he is, but Ferguson doesn’t ever demonstrate any illegal activity on his part.

Ferguson’s work is most effective when he (and the narration by Matt Damon) is simply laying out the facts and connections. I’m most pleased with the lack of partisanship in the film. Ferguson accuses both Republican and Democrat administrations equally. It’s a great example of how an accusatory documentary can be made without the propaganda techniques employed in films like Fahrenheit 9/11 and Sicko. You’re likely to walk away much more informed about the economy than you would if you only followed a major daily newspaper, but it might have been more interesting to focus on the compensation that unethical bankers continued to receive at taxpayer expense after the Obama administration bailout.

1 comment:

  1. After writing my reviews I always go to my regular critics to see their take. A.O. Scott of The New York Times is my favorite film critic at the moment. Here's a particularly choice paragraph from his review, summing up an aspect of the film I wish I'd picked up on:

    "Dozens of interviews — along with news clips and arresting aerial shots of New York, Iceland and other disaster areas — are folded into a clear and absorbing history, narrated by Matt Damon. The music (an opening song, “Big Time,” by Peter Gabriel, and a score by Alex Heffes) and the clean wide-screen cinematography provide an aesthetic polish that is welcome for its own sake and also important to the movie’s themes. The handsomely lighted and appointed interiors convey a sense of the rarefied, privileged worlds in which the Wall Street operators and their political enablers flourished, and the elegance of the presentation also subliminally bolsters the film’s authority. This is not a piece of ragged muckraking or breathless advocacy. It rests its outrage on reason, research and careful argument."

    Read the full Times review here: