The last movie that came through town about the Federal Reserve was “Silver Circle,” a futuristic animated thriller depicting a dystopian world in which the Fed’s monetary policies had led to hyperinflation and $150-per-gallon gas. As a villain, it featured a fictional Fed chairman so power mad that he routinely ordered his political enemies assassinated and tossed into a crematorium.
So it’s a relief to watch “Money for Nothing: Inside the Federal Reserve.” The closest that Jim Bruce’s sober documentary gets to hyperbole is when narrator Liev Schreiber intones — against footage of Frankenstein’s monster rising from a chair — “As Alan Greenspan’s term drew to a close, his transformation of the American economy was complete.”
To be sure, Bruce is no fan of Greenspan, who served as Fed chairman from 1987 to 2006. Nor is he a supporter of Greenspan’s monetary policy, which the film presents as at least partially responsible for the recent financial crisis and, it is implied, any potential financial disasters to come. But the director, writer, producer and editor of “Money for Nothing” lets others do his dirty work, as when Alan Blinder, Greenspan’s vice chairman from 1994 to ’96, compares his old boss to God, and not in a good way.
Such a megalomaniacal characterization is not an uncommon view in the film, either of Greenspan (whom The Post’s Bob Woodward dubbed “Maestro” in his book of the same name) or of Fed chairmen in general. Whether it’s Paul Volcker, who preceded Greenspan in the office, or Greenspan’s successor, Ben Bernanke, “Money for Nothing” tends to anthropomorphize the institution, conflating the bank with the person at its helm, as when Schreiber says, “The Fed got it into its head. . . .”
Yet the film is less a look into the Fed’s head than a presentation of its history, going back even farther than its creation in 1913, in response to a series of early 20th-century banking panics. A Washington-centric wonk-fest, with appearances by a parade of economists, pundits and former governors of the Federal Reserve Board, it’s academic, insider-y and dry to the point of dull at times. Who is its audience? People who know what TARP and HOEPA stand for, without having to stop and think. (Troubled Asset Relief Program, and Home Ownership and Equity Protection Act, in case you were wondering. And if you were, this is probably not the movie for you.)
As such, the film deserves credit for avoiding hysterics. Its central message is stated clearly and dispassionately enough: The financial mess we’re still climbing out of can be laid directly at the feet of the Fed, whose misguided advocacy, under Greenspan, of a borrow-and-spend economy rather than a focus on savings and investment has created a situation where, as the title implies, money is disconnected from any underlying value.
At the same time, the film could benefit from a bit more layman’s language. Financial expert Peter Atwater nicely describes the Fed’s original mission as one of alternately applying the gas pedal and brakes to the U.S. economy, through a combination of raising or lowering interest rates and increasing or decreasing the money supply.
Near the beginning of the film, narrator Schreiber cites 1971 as the year everything in the U.S. economy changed, presumably for the worse. That’s when President Richard Nixon, in a television broadcast interrupting “Bonanza,” suspended the connection between the U.S. dollar and gold, a traditional link between the value of paper currency and precious metal known as the Gold Standard. “Money for Nothing” suggests that the roots of all the economic evils that have followed — inflation, recession, economic collapse — go back even farther, to the birth of the Fed.
That institution is a monster that the film urges viewers to approach, not with irrational exuberance, to use Greenspan’s famous description of the mind-set of dot-com investors, but with something like its opposite. Call it brainy trepidation.
Unrated. At Landmark’s E Street Cinema. Contains scary economists, but otherwise nothing objectionable. 104 minutes.