Kristin Davis, former Wall Street madam, in Inside Job
All the Rage
Where the wealth went
by Jason Blair
INSIDE JOB: Written and directed by Charles Ferguson. Cinematography, Kalyanee Mam and Svetlana Cvetko. Music, Alex Hefee. With Nouriel Roubini, Barney Frank, George Soros and Eliot Spitzer. Sony Pictures Classics, 2010. PG-13. 108 minutes.
One of the professional courtesies extended to film critics is the DVD screener, an advance copy of a film sent to media outlets by the movie studios. At the start of every screener, as predictable as romantic comedies in December, a notification invokes the punishment — five years in prison, hundreds of thousands in fines — for the unlawful duplication and distribution of the screener. Screener piracy is no laughing matter, but as I settled in with my advance copy of Inside Job, I couldn’t help noticing the sad irony of the situation. Were I to disobey the warning labels and notification screens, and perhaps even distribute a few copies to my friends, the chances of me being prosecuted were greater than the professional crooks chronicled so effectively by Inside Job.
Arranged in five acts, like a Shakespearean tragedy, Inside Job is the story of a decades-long betrayal of public trust by Wall Street and Pennsylvania Avenue. The film, which is about the global financial crisis of 2008, is actually the story of an extended and systematic effort to defraud everyday people by the agencies meant to serve them. Not intentionally defraud, the culprits might argue — and several try, and fail, to our delight in Inside Job — but when the traditional mortgage loan becomes a commodity to be collateralized and securitized, who exactly is at risk? I haven’t felt such a sustained emotional response to a film since An Inconvenient Truth, a documentary that also managed a complex story with great emotional and intellectual balance. But whereas global warming is a symptom of our collective mania for carbon, the global financial crisis was a failure of both ethics and oversight by the privileged so they could enjoy greater privileges still.
The story of Inside Job, as well as the financial disaster itself, is the story of deregulation, the organized dismantling of banking safeguards put in place after the Great Depression. Deregulation, inaugurated in 1981, institutionalized financial speculation, a high-risk, high-reward enterprise that brought enormous returns to traders and speculators alike. According to Inside Job, gambling among investment banks can be traced to deregulation, a move which ensured a succession of crises of escalating severity (the S&L crisis, the internet stock valuation scandal, the subprime mortgage crisis, etc.). In the recent collapse, the usual suspects are on hand — Alan Greenspan, Henry Paulson and Larry Summers — as well as a few you wouldn’t expect, including former President Clinton and, most damning, President Obama, whose commitment to the status quo (in the form of Paulson and Timothy Geithner) is on display as never before in Inside Job.
Director Charles Ferguson, whose 2007 debut was the Oscar-nominated No End in Sight — still the definitive story of the invasion and occupation of Iraq — has managed something extraordinary in Inside Job: a documentary that inspires anger without succumbing to it. Ferguson’s genius, and I’m not using that term casually, is the way in which, over the course of two hours, he establishes the global financial crisis as simply the most recent betrayal at our expense by the financial sector. A former MIT professor of political science, Ferguson can be said, after less than five years in the business, to be among the maverick filmmakers working today. Credit is also due to Matt Damon, who narrates the film with such dispassionate calm that it’s hard to believe, as has been reported, that he contributed to the film’s narrative structure, a fact unheard of in modern-day documentary.
Inside Job is a film with too many villains and not enough heroes. The material is complex, but the message is clear: The key players rigged the economy, then paid themselves on the way out. How many times can the little guy lose — his house, his job, his retirement — before we decide it’s enough?
Inside Job opens Friday, Nov. 12, at the Bijou.