Friday, October 29, 2010

Film review: Inside Job

Writer/Director: Charles Ferguson
Producer: Audrey Marrs, Charles Ferguson
Narrator: Matt Damon
Documentary, 120 minutes

You may think you know what happened in during the great economic meltdown of 2008. But do you really?

Some films have tried to lay it all out for us, such as  Michael Moore's excellent Capitalism: A Love Story. But critics often dismiss Moore's work by attacking him personally and ignoring the films themselves. Charles Ferguson has the advantage of not being a personality, at least not yet. He was Oscar-nominated for his superb Iraq War documentary No End in Sight, but also has a B.A. in mathematics and a Ph.D. in political science. He puts his expert knowledge to use in meticulously laying out the events and machinations behind the financial crisis in his latest film Inside Job.

What emerges is an examination so thorough and compelling that it'll leave your head spinning. You'll also be shocked and infuriated. It turns out that our banks and financial institutions are essentially criminal in their behaviour. But whereas past crises have led to arrests and fines, no one has been charged in this instance even though it was so much more devastating. In fact, most of the guilty got massive seven, eight and even nine figure bonuses.

The film starts with a quick look at Iceland which was a very healthy economy until 2000 when they began a regime of deregulation and privatization. In short order their economy collapsed, playing out the American financial collapse in miniature. Then the movie focuses on the American economy and breaks it down into five chapters -- Part I: How we got here; Part II: The bubble 2001-2007; Part III: The crisis; Part IV: Accountability; and Party V: Where are we now? It shows how the economy was vibrant and completely crisis-free for forty years until 1981 when Ronald Reagan began a thirty-year period of deregulation. From then on, things went from bad to worse.

There's a tremendous amount of detail that Ferguson provides, but he helps the viewer follow by providing useful graphics and by interviewing some impressive experts, including Charles Morris (author of The Trillion Dollar Meltdown: Easy Money, High Rollers and the Great Credit Crash, and predictor of the crash), Christine Lagarde (France's Minister of Finance, Economic Affairs, Industry and Employment), Robert Gnaizda (Greenlining Institute in Berkeley), and disgraced New York governor Eliot Spitzer, who was known as a straight arrow and sued the banks for fraud before he was (perhaps not purely coincidentally) brought down by a sex scandal.

But what's amazing is that Ferguson gets many of the culprits on camera as well, people such as Frederic Mishkin who was on the Board of Governors at the Federal Reserve from 2006 to 2008 and is now an economist and professor at Columbia Business School, or Glenn Hubbard who was Chief Economic Advisor for George W. Bush and is now Dean of the Columbia University Business School. It's interesting to see how they change over the course of the film from seeing Ferguson as a friendly fellow businessperson (he is a dotcom millionaire, having founded Vermeer Technologies before selling it to Microsoft), to realizing he isn't going along with their usual talking points and spin but rather calling them out for their sins.

It's a very entertaining account, often quite funny albeit with a dark edge. What's tragic is that things aren't likely to get better any time soon, especially with voters obliviously embracing the "tax cuts and deregulation" mantra of right-wingers without stopping to think that 's what got us into this mess in the first place. If only people saw this film before they voted, then we might actually end up with governments that serve the people rather than corrupt businesses and financial institutions.

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