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Henry Paulson, Ben Bernanke and Timothy Geithner in INSIDE JOB (Photo: Sony Pictures Classics)

Directed by Charles Ferguson
Produced by
Ferguson & Audrey Marrs
Released by Sony Pictures Classics
USA. 120 min. Rated PG-13
Narrated by Matt Damon

Inside Job is a serviceable tutorial on the basics of the global financial crisis for anyone who has not listened to NPR’s Planet Money, watched PBS’s Frontline, or read any of the many best-selling exposés about what led to the Great Recession. It also serves as an update of other topical films, from outraged documentaries like Michael Moore’s Capitalism: A Love Story and Leslie and Andrew Cockburn’s American Casino to Oliver Stone’s current Wall Street 2: Money Never Sleeps.

Though director Charles Ferguson isn’t as freshly insightful as he was about the origins of another political quagmire, the Iraq War in No End in Sight, he targets several provocative elements through a five-chapter story line. He emphasizes the global impact of the fall of the intertwined financial markets by opening the film on the volcanic mists of Iceland, a country where the banks dived into the deep end, and he includes very thoughtful interviews with aghast financial leaders from China, France, and Singapore.

All the Usual Suspects are lined up, from the continuing chain of decisions that deregulated the financial services industry beginning in the Reagan era to the titans of Wall Street, who revolve through the Washington D.C. doors of power. Declining to be interviewed, they are mostly seen giving testimony to asleep-at-the-wheel Congress. Ferguson avoids piling on the usual blame about letting Lehman Brothers fail. At the press conference for the films screening at the New York Film Festival, he said there are too many equally credible fingers to point.

All the usual Cassandras who warned the public and the players of the impending bubble burst—economists, journalists, consumer advocates, investors—are willing to be interviewed, including “Dr. Doom,” Nouriel Roubini, who plays the same sonorous role in Wall Street 2. The Inconvenient Truth-like red lines to disaster on the multitude of graphs and charts are very lucid, and the technical terms fairly well explained. For example, while the securities made up of sub-prime, predatory housing mortgages aren’t quite made clear, the investment banks’ credit default swaps that brought AIG to its knees are very well clarified as self-dealing insurance bets.

In the most cynical segments, Ferguson attacks head-on academics at prestigious universities whose best-of-all-possible-worlds research is shown to have been bought and paid for by the financial industry, shaming several on camera until they are reduced to stuttering. (He includes Harvard economics professor/presidential advisor Martin Feldstein as if his culpability for unleashing the free market is new. Students for years have protested Feldstein’s point of view with an alternative syllabus to his popular lectures.) Ferguson, who has a Ph.D. in political science from M.I.T., forcefully takes the stance that business schools should have the same ethical standards as medical schools in requiring identification of industry ties for research funding, consulting arrangements, and board memberships. (He doesn’t finger the TV cheerleaders as Stone and Jon Stewart do.)

With far, far too many aerial views of the skyline of Manhattan representing irrational exuberance, the titillation of the drug and prostitute celebrations of the Wall Street strivers is no more a revelation than in Ben Younger’s Boiler Room (2000), based on its director’s experiences working in a testosterone-fueled brokerage, or the gleeful traders caught on audio tape in Alex Gibney’s Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room (2005). Then the film, as narrated by Matt Damon, fumes as it updates the troubles to the Obama years, seen as the-more-things-change-the-more-they-stay-the-same, with held-over-by-unpopular-demand economic leaders from previous administrations and reform legislation weakened by industry lobbyists.

I’ve thought of the financial markets run amok without responsible supervision like the Cat in the Hat ignoring the warning of the angry fish that Thing 1 and Thing 2 shouldn’t be let loose in the house when mother is out. Ferguson is too angry to use such humor, but he straightforwardly describes the things that went on over many rainy days, and warns that we are all responsible for making sure those things get back in the box. Nora Lee Mandel
October 8, 2010



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