Movies: Inside Job

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BY RAJ RANADE
Given the recent obsession of documentaries with hyper-partisan rhetoric, egregious truth-massaging, and outright fakery, the non-fiction filmmaking style of director Charles Ferguson can almost seem quaint. Rather than indulging in neck-vein-popping hysteria à la Michael Moore, Ferguson has the old-fashioned idea of instead collecting facts through pain-staking research and personal interviews, and then using them to carefully construct a thoughtful argument. A radical approach, certainly, but the old ways still have their uses. Ferguson’s Iraq war documentary No End in Sight might be a little drier than Moore’s Fahrenheit 9/11, but where the latter can be easily dismissed as manipulative shaky-fact propaganda, the former is damned near unassailable as a terrifying catalog of America’s many failures of war planning and execution.

Now Ferguson has once again put a Michael Moore film to shame – last year’s Capitalism: A Love Story pales in comparison to Ferguson’s Inside Job as an indictment of the people behind the 2008 subprime mortgage crisis and the Wall Street culture that allowed and even encouraged the crisis to happen. Like No End in Sight, Inside Job doesn’t provide any new information that hasn’t been exhaustively covered in existing journalism. What it does provide is clarity – Ferguson’s film elegantly cuts through confusing jargon and arcane corporate maneuvering to present a clear narrative of what went wrong – how news laws gutted the power of regulators to prevent Wall Street wrongdoing, how investment banks created mortgage-based investments they knew would fail and then profited by betting against them, how former leaders of those investment banks came to dominate the key financial leadership positions in the government, and how the academics creating Wall Street’s next generation are thoroughly compromised by their links with the financial world’s current leaders.

The story, supported in the film by dozens of key policy-makers and financial experts, is certainly scary enough in its depiction of rampant greed and utterly absent morality. But the thing that is by far scariest about Inside Job is the seemingly total lack of remorse shown by any of the culprits involved – their apologies at Congressional hearings are as convincing as their protestations that they deserve their bonuses. When Glenn Hubbard, architect of the Bush tax cuts and dean of Columbia Business School, is pressed by Ferguson on whether his investment bank consulting work constitutes a conflict of interest, he reminds Ferguson that the interview will be over in three minutes and snarls “Give it your best shot.” kind of Wall Street defiance may be depressing, but it’s not hard to understand – to date, not a single person has been prosecuted for any wrongdoing in the financial crisis, despite obvious wrongdoing. Furthermore, many of the architects of the crisis were rewarded with high-level appointments in the Obama administration that promised reform.

For all its strengths, Inside Job is a little weaker as a film than No End in Sight – it’s a little more willing to go for cheap shots like ironic pop-music montages (BTO’s “Taking Care of Business” seems a touch on the nose, doesn’t it?) and manipulations like cutting off interviewees in mid-sentence. Its least convincing moment, however, comes in the coda, when narrator Matt Damon makes a concluding speech containing vague suggestions that reform is possible. Leaving the audience with some hope is a nice thought, but it’s hard not to scoff at that kind of limp optimism, when the rest of the film so convincingly lays out the institutionalized infiltration of investment bankers into every corridor of power. It seems more accurate to say that it’s Wall Street’s world now – we’re just losing money in it.

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