Behind the meltdown
By Ann Hornaday
Friday, October 22, 2010
If Oliver Stone's recent "Wall Street" sequel exploited the 2008 financial meltdown for all its theatrical excess, Charles Ferguson's documentary "Inside Job" mines the crisis for its most shocking nonfictional drama. If you think you've absorbed all you could about subprime mortgages, credit default swaps and the arcana of elaborate derivatives, think again. "Inside Job" traces the history of the crisis and its implications with exceptional lucidity, rigor and righteous indignation.
What's more, Ferguson actually breaks news, uncovering the shady world of academic economists who, as paid consultants for the very banks they write seemingly objective research papers about, are part of the revolving door between Wall Street and Washington.
Filmgoers might remember Ferguson for his 2007 documentary "No End in Sight," about the American occupation of Iraq. That astonishing debut was deservedly nominated for an Oscar, but some skeptics thought maybe the tech millionaire - he founded Vermeer Technologies, which Microsoft bought for a bundle - simply had beginner's luck. Wonder no longer: Ferguson is the real thing, as evidenced by "Inside Job's" taut, laser-focused narrative, which manages to infuse real tension into a story most viewers know all too well. Shot by Svetlana Cvetko with crisp, bold digital imagery and set to Peter Gabriel's "Big Time" and other trenchant pop numbers, "Inside Job" isn't a tutorial as much as a trip: swift, scary and at times as mind-bending as Alice's sojourn behind the looking glass.
After a brief prologue in economically ravaged Iceland, Ferguson takes viewers back to post-Depression times, when tight financial regulation coincided with a period of uninterrupted growth. When Ronald Reagan came to power in the 1980s, a spate of deregulation began that only metastasized under Bill Clinton. If the savings and loan crisis of the 1980s and 1990s was a harbinger of things to come, it was all but ignored by such financial kingpins as Robert Rubin, Alan Greenspan and others for whom regulation was ideological anathema.
As meticulously laid out by Ferguson, the implosion two years ago was inevitable, and claims that no one saw it coming are patently false, as economists Raghuram Rajan and Nouriel Roubini are happy to tell you. Ferguson himself can frequently be heard confronting the officials who deign to talk with him, often countering their blithe denials of culpability with "You can't be serious" or its rhetorical equivalent. Tellingly, several of those who were recently or are still in power in Washington - Larry Summers, Ben Bernanke, Timothy Geithner, Henry Paulson - declined to be interviewed.
Summers is revealed as a particularly galling character in "Inside Job," and not only because as deputy Treasury secretary he bullied Commodity Futures Trading Commission chief Brooksley Born out of regulating derivatives back in 1998. As the former president of Harvard and chief economic adviser to President Obama, he embodies the egregious conflicts of interest among academia, the financial services industry and government "regulators" that Ferguson so skillfully exposes. (Although we're denied the pleasure of seeing Summers on the hot seat, Ferguson's grilling of Columbia University Business School Dean Glenn Hubbard, which ends with Hubbard sputtering in high dudgeon when his potential conflicts are revealed, represents the art of muckraking at its finest.)
Still, as brilliant as "Inside Job" is, it leaves the viewer with a pronounced feeling of helplessness. None of the principals in the financial meltdown was arrested, indicted or even forced to admit wrongdoing; indeed, many of them weren't even fired but were allowed to resign with hefty platinum parachutes. "Inside Job" joins such recent documentaries as "The Tillman Story" and "Casino Jack and the United States of Money" as an infuriating chronicle of the abuse of power with little or no push-back from the criminal justice system or Congress. Sure, they're all terrific films. But they're no substitute for genuine accountability.
Contains drug- and sex-related material.