Charles Ferguson’s chilling documentary examines the run-up to the financial crisis
Anger is an underrated response to a movie — not to be mad at a film, but to be mad with it. Charles Ferguson’s documentary “Inside Job,’’ about the recent financial catastrophe, is infuriating the way the best nonfiction filmmaking can be. The movie succeeds at upsetting you not by losing its cool, the way so many similar films do, but by slow-cooking its argument. Most of the film is focused on Manhattan. But the movie begins in Iceland the way New York disaster movies often start in a science lab, the woods, or outer space.
This is a work of sustained, nonpartisan rage. Its anger is always simmering, never all-consuming. Ferguson knows what it is he wants to say, and the movie goes about its point-making with lawyerly precision. The result is a masterpiece of investigative nonfiction moviemaking — a scathing, outrageous, depressing, comical, horrifying report on what and who brought on the crisis.
It’s one of the rare enterprises on this subject where statistics and financial argot don’t feel like an onslaught or obscure the larger argument. Of course, at this point, “credit default swaps,’’ “subprime loans,’’ and “derivatives’’ seem like old friends. Indeed, all your favorite financial terms are mentioned. You recognize them even if you can’t understand them.
In much the same way he did in his previous film, “No End in Sight,’’ about the run-up to the Iraq war, Ferguson finds many of the key players of the crisis and many others — economists, lobbyists, journalists, a shrink, Eliot Spitzer — who have special knowledge about how it happened. Many of them sit in conference rooms, offices, and minimalist locations that seem somehow chic. Spitzer holds forth in an unfurnished space on the top floor of a tall building. I suppose a movie about money should look like a million bucks.
The use of footage from last spring’s instantly legendary Senate cross-examination of suits from
The movie suspects that financial deregulation is at the root of how we got here. Since the Reagan era, Ferguson argues, the White House has been robustly staffed with men and women from finance who oppose regulation and have steadily acquired the administrative power to contort the government to their will.
After about 30 minutes or so, the movie evolves into a kind a of thriller, and one of Ferguson’s choice moves is to illustrate how natural the transition is from Wall Street to the White House, and how the same reform-averse names refuse to go away, like a bad cold or herpes. Lawrence Summers, who was President Clinton’s treasury secretary and, until last month, President Obama’s chief economic adviser, was an architect of the current financial system. He’s painted as unflatteringly here as he is in “The Social Network.’’ The movie argues that the Obama administration has diverged from Europe by opting out of more strictly regulating executive pay.
For the number of times we read or are told (Matt Damon works hard as our narrator) that so-and-so declined to be interviewed (Summers; the sour-looking current treasury secretary Timothy Geithner, who did just sit down at Charlie Rose’s table; the head of the Federal Reserve Ben Bernanke; and his predecessor Alan Greenspan; the list is even longer on the film’s website), the movie has a deep bench of experts and perpetrators, several of whom seem unlikely to regain their integrity or the respect of their peers upon the film’s release.
For instance, it’s unclear how a man like Frederic Mishkin, who, at the height of the meltdown, abruptly left his governor’s post at the Federal Reserve in order to “edit a textbook,’’ will ever be able to show his face anywhere again (and sadly for him; it’s not a face that’s easy to forget).
This is a damning work of deliberate, unsparingly meted incrimination. At best, many of the people who landed the world in this crisis are duplicitous. At worst, they’re evil. Some just look foolish.
Did you know John Campbell, the department chair of Harvard’s economics department, sees no conflict of interest in members of his faculty who take big bucks from the financial industry then stand as obstacles to financial regulation? Campbell’s being rendered speechless before Ferguson’s camera runs a not-so-distant second to Mishkin in the self-immolation department. (Yes, it seems even the teaching of economics has been tainted.)
You wonder why these men (it’s mostly men) agreed to sit down with Ferguson. They seem taken aback by the director’s attempt to incriminate them. David McCormick, an under secretary in the Treasury Department during the second Bush administration, actually asks Ferguson to stop rolling. With the help of a researcher, Kalyanee Mam, Ferguson is prepared for each interview, and watching a couple of the movie’s cockier interview subjects turn petulant under questioning is good, uncomfortable theater.
“Inside Job’’ is scarier than anything Wes Craven and John Carpenter have ever made. Ferguson even corners the seemingly mild-mannered Glenn Hubbard, George W. Bush’s chief economic adviser and the current dean of Columbia’s business school, into a chilling axe-murderer-type moment. The film treats the enormity of its subject with the gravity it deserves. Ferguson occasionally asserts himself to ask, with disbelief, “Are you serious?,’’ or to say, “That just isn’t true.’’ But he doesn’t get in his own way as Michael Moore did throughout “Capitalism: A Love Story ,’’ his similarly peeved, but far more ungainly Wall Street spanking.
The closest the movie comes to activism is in its passages on the banks’ entertainment expenses. Robert Gnaizda, a social justice advocate who seems weary from decades of fighting white-collar crime, insists on going after a number of executives. The movie then radically suggests that the most effective way to criminally prosecute the perpetrators of the financial crisis for various frauds is to have their prostitutes, dealers, and minions blow the whistle. It wouldn’t be hard to do, narrates Damon. (Ferguson sits down with one swollen-looking prostitute who took a plea bargain. That encounter might be more credible had someone removed the two long microphones hanging just above her head.)
In any case, “Inside Job’’ insists on a kind of revolution, as many such documentaries do. But this is one of the elite few with the goods to send you rioting in the streets. It’s too important to fail.