Inside Job (2010, Charles Ferguson)
Charles Ferguson’s Inside Job has all the handily digestible hallmarks of a bit of prestige documentary cinema, with the caveat that it’s a relatively straightforward, even artless digression in regard to the gradual development and tipping point of the 2008 financial crisis that sent America and the rest of the world hurtling into recession. Not a matter upon which there’s a dearth of material, but the pedigree of Job as a significant bit of widely noted and persuasive filmmaking would seem to place it a cut above the onslaught of smaller-scale projects and stories we’ve plowed through in these last four years. This is only partially the case, but the movie comes out well enough most of the time; just don’t expect it to cover matters too far beyond the superficial-end ideas of accountability and societal implication, largely because the film intends to be a bite-sized morsel well under two hours and hasn’t the time to give these topics the depth they deserve.
Ferguson spends a good bit of screen time giving us the white-collar tomfoolery we’ve by now come to expect — lots of comical excess and obscene bonus-sharing on the part of Lehman Brothers and Goldman Sachs executives, trotted out later before Congress for some dutiful finger-wagging. But we listen to Marketplace and read Fortune; what can this movie tell us? Its prime virtue is its impressive and miraculous explication of the cause-effect and nuts and bolts of the crisis itself — what happened, when and why it happened, and what deep down it really means. Through lucid narration and friendly colorful diagrams, it all becomes elegantly clear; that alone may prove the bulk of Inside Job‘s legacy and goodwill, to make the unknowable (to the layman) familiar, even if somewhat streamlined.
Where the film falls short is in the gradual unspooling of its focus; though the pace is flawless throughout, never boring even when the most arcane matters are under discussion, there’s a sense that Ferguson has only sporadically lent us an unobstructed view of what the real impact of all this was. There is eventually a nod or two to unemployment, the hefty tax burdens, the general approach of unexpected squalor, but as seems so often the case in performances like this of recent history, we don’t seem to have removed the glasses fully just yet. Sure, the story’s incomplete partially because we can’t know how it will all extrapolate in the decades to come, but more individuals played a role here than corporate executives and politicians — we did too.
It’s nevertheless a credit to Ferguson that, without overreaching, Inside Job manages to feel genuinely passionate and vindictive. The feeling is strongest, bravest during the material, tangential in some ways to Ferguson’s thesis, dealing with the under-reported corruption of economic academia, something we rub up against during the revealing interviews that run throughout, featuring tellingly squirmy moments from Martin Feldstein and Frederic Mishkin, among others, while the specters of Greenspan and Paulson loom menacingly behind. The bald conflicts of interest explored in this section are fertile enough to provide material for their own feature film; the vicious-cycle feeling of hopelessness given off feeds one’s energetic need to do something, anything. Therein lies the film’s power to educate and infuriate.
Is it cinematic? Does it have a lot of shelf life? Not sure, but spend a lot of time around its well-warranted bleakness and you start to wonder if it matters, if we’ve got much shelf life ourselves. By the close, you start to feel trapped; as narrator Matt Damon puts it, “For the first time in history, average Americans have less education and are less prosperous than their parents.” That’s too sobering and too pointed a sentence to dilute by questioning its artistic place in the world; that’s an undistorted mirror of where we are, right now, and even if he can’t do much of a damned thing about it, Ferguson is determined that you stare straight into it and wake up tomorrow remembering the things he’s told you. He’s done so skillfully enough that you almost certainly will.