All right, so it’s been two years since our country was devastated by a complete economic meltdown, and we the people are mad as hell. As with the aftermath of any life-altering crisis, we need someone to blame, and just saying “Bush did it” isn’t gonna cut it anymore. Who can we turn to in the dead of night to direct our rage — to throw out terms like “derivatives” and “credit default swap” in authoritative Helvetica, to show us what happens when Hollywood sticks it to the man?
At the State
Never fear, citizens. Director Charles Ferguson is on the case with “Inside Job,” the latest product of the “Here’s where we went wrong” documentary subgenre (which enjoys a boom whenever the rest of the world screws the pooch). Ferguson, who previously helmed the Iraq War doc “No End in Sight,” rakes some muck right onto the doorstep of the finance industry for its supremely unethical lending practices, which had grown more and more unchecked since Ronald Reagan deregulated the banks during his presidency.
From the perspective of someone who’s not in the Ross School of Business and doesn’t necessarily understand all these fancy phrases, here’s the movie’s case, in brief: During the housing bubble of the mid-2000s, the banks that lend out money to homeowners packaged various mortgage payments together with other types of loans to create collateralized debt obligations (CDOs), which they were then able to sell for a larger profit even as the investment risks became much greater (because the banks no longer needed to rely on homeowners paying them back to make money, they could make deals with much worse credit and lend out larger sums of their money than before).
At the same time, firms like Goldman Sachs were betting against the toxic CDOs owned by insurance companies like AIG — in other words, they were knowingly engaging in shitty business deals and then profiting when they failed. The crash itself was, as the movie states over and over again, a “ticking time bomb” that finally exploded when all these risky practices reached critical mass.
It’s always amusing in documentaries like this to see what footage the filmmakers will rely on to communicate non-visual ideas; here we get color-coded revenue stream flowcharts and overhead chopper pans of tall buildings. But after a while the technique becomes too isolating. The building shots only draw attention to how we never go inside the headquarters of the guilty parties, and there are very few personal stories from those actually affected by the banks’ greedy practices (and it’s odd that the only such story presented is that of a family that doesn’t speak English). A small segment on an executive’s five-private-jets lifestyle is nicely enraging; “Inside Job” could have used more of that.
What’s also curious about Ferguson’s technique is the extent to which he inserts himself in the film. Though he keeps himself behind the camera and hands narrative duties off to Matt Damon, we often hear the questions he’s posing to his interview subjects as well as his response to their answers — sometimes all he’ll say is “Wow, OK” or “You can’t be serious” before the scene changes, as if his incredulous reaction is all the proof we need that these guys are crooks. It’s an unnecessary, self-serving flourish. No one is honestly going to think, “Well, financial lobbyist Scott Talbott seems like he’s only acting with Wall Street’s interests in mind, but I’ll have to hear Charles Ferguson’s reaction to his comments before I’ll know for certain.”
Still, these are quibbles of style, not of content. “Inside Job” is an incredibly hard-hitting and informative attack on people who deserve it, and it doesn’t go easy on either the Bush or Obama administrations (take that, everyone who was planning to accuse this movie of bleeding-heart liberalism). The pure rage within the film is almost overwhelming, but at least we get great C-SPAN footage of Michigan’s own Sen. Carl Levin opening a can of whoop-ass on Goldman Sachs. And if you do happen to be in the Ross School, it’s not too late to consider a career in a more ethical line of work, like baby seal clubbing.