[Now Playing (at least in Toronto). Go see it!]
A more apt title for Charles Ferguson’s Inside Job would be: Everything You Wanted to Know about the Financial Crisis but Were Afraid to Ask. More so than the heist movie the title suggests, this definitive documentary on the origin, impact and repercussions of the global financial meltdown of 2008 attempts to provide an oral history of the event for future generations to heed. The messages of films like Collapse, The Corporation and here, Inside Job, challenge more than a particular group or issue, they make us confront our very survival and way of life. We ignore at our own peril.
A talking heads documentary? Sure, but with one hell of a story to tell. Inside Job showcases a who’s who of economic and political personalities (those culpable and/or unwilling to be interviewed are called out by name). A considered and comprehensive inquiry into the crisis, the documentary never shies away from explaining the minutiae of the ‘heist’, whether by making intelligible the predatory tactics of derivatives, the bubble of bank leveraging, or the incestuous relationship between credit rating and insurance agencies with mortgage-backed securities. Not exactly a sexy subject, and no amount of Matt Damon’s narration and tongue-in-cheek musical cues can alleviate the weight of what this film is burdened to tell, but by design Inside Job appeals to the mind more than the heart.
Charles Ferguson is like the thinking-man’s Michael Moore: Capitalism A Love Story and Inside Job tread similar territory but while Moore keeps to an ironic on-the-ground perspective, Ferguson bears witness to the tragedy from a steely birds-eye view, as if daring you to find a fallacious hole in his thesis. A part of me wanted Ferguson to relent and allow more of the Shakespearean drama to unfold in the lurid tales of CEOs gone wild, much the way Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room had done, but this would arguably detract from his message, making it easier to lay blame to a few eccentrics and overlook the systemic problems therein.
His steely focus is not without purpose, there is a surprising resurgence of opinion in America that deregulation is the way to go, and that government has so royally messed things up that only the marketplace can makes things right. Inside Job is squarely directed at these amnesiacs. The inherent short-sightedness of type A self-interest that infiltrates every facet of the global financial system is the flaw that Ferguson highlights, and when it is packaged as an ideology and bullied into the classrooms and political offices of those who influence regulation, when conflicts of interest and loophole legislation become the status-quo, its no longer a question of a couple bad apples, a couple eccentric bankers. The rot runs deep and continues on in the Obama administration, a segment of the documentary that is terrifying to contemplate.
In spite of its grand scope, and perhaps a consequence of time constraints, the film fails to address some key elements of the crisis: the ambiguous relationship of the Federal Reserve as a privately-held institution that works in service of the Federal government, and how it could be that most of the stimulus money did not circulate beyond the banks. As much of an exposé as the film is, Ferguson is reluctant to follow such threads to their conspiratorial conclusions. He is willing to strongly imply that there is more afoot than negligence but not take all of the facts together and see the over-arching pattern that emerges and call it what it is: one elaborate ponzi scheme by design.