December 7, 2010

Taking It Home: Inside Job

Finally, it all makes sense. Mostly.

Listening to the media echo chamber discuss President Obama's tax deal this week, I realized that it's been more than two months since I saw Charles Ferguson's illuminating Inside Job, and, shockingly, I think I still understand his deft explanation of the reasons behind the financial meltdown and, consequently, our current panic about tax rates and unemployment benefits. After numerous films - including but not limited to Capitalism: A Love Story (0/2 for Michael Moore after he dropped the health care ball with the forgettable Sicko), American Casino, Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps, and even The Other Guys - tried and failed to explain what led to The Great Recession, Ferguson's film was like a breath of fresh air, illustrating the financial foolishness in terms that anyone can understand. Good thing, too, because as I said in my pan of the meaningless Wall Street, this was probably the last chance The Recession Movie had to establish itself as a viable genre.

Why was it so hard to present this financial information in a clear way prior to this film? To be fair it does require a lot of detailed explanation, and when filmmakers have other things on their minds (melodrama and an Oscar in the case of Stone's Wall Street; comedy and I-don't-know-what in the case of Moore's Capitalism), the meat of the subject at hand is guaranteed to be lost. Inside Job, in contrast, has little else on it's mind other than telling us what happened and, not accidentally, making us feel really angry about it. This isn't necessarily a fair and balanced documentary (and maybe not a documentary at all?), but it nonetheless presents the facts and allows educated people to talk about them, even though in this case the facts really speak for themselves.

Which would explain why many of the individuals and corporations Ferguson criticizes declined to be interviewed for the film. What would criminals like Angelo Mozilo have to say in defense of themselves, anyway? That they're sorry? They didn't understand what was going on? Right. Even those who were brave enough to face Ferguson on camera were indignant and/or simply speechless as they tried to push the blame elsewhere. I give them credit for agreeing to be interviewed on-camera, but their lack of remorse correlates with my lack of sympathy for their lost billions.

And what separates Ferguson from someone like Michael Moore is that he is neither ambushing these interviewees nor outright accusing them of anything. He asks questions - really hard and uncomfortably direct questions, but fair questions nonetheless. (Ironically, the subjects of these interrogations appear to be in much more comfortable settings than those in Ferguson's excellent No End In Sight, in which he literally interviews one subject in a dark stairwell.) I suppose "fearless" would be an appropriate descriptor for Ferguson, but I almost admire more his ability to illustrate highly complex dilemmas - Iraq and the recession - in layman's terms and, in this case, with extremely helpful graphics.

All that said, despite my better understanding of what led to the recession I've still been troubled by two questions over the last couple of months, namely: Is there an honest banker anywhere in America (I haven't yet read this timely profile)?; and, is greater regulation the only way to prevent greed from overtaking economies?

Regarding the second question, I'm convinced that yes, humans cannot be trusted to fairly and responsibly handle money any more than lions can be trusted to fairly and responsibly handle fresh meat. Our instinct, our human nature, will ultimately be our downfall unless systems are in place to stop us. In a great piece in another recent NYT Magazine, David Frum succinctly outlined some lessons from the November elections that also overlapped with what I took from Ferguson's film. For me, Lesson 2 gets right to the heart of it:
Lesson 2: “The market” (the whole free-market system) must be distinguished from “the markets” (the trading markets for financial assets). Perhaps it’s because the most influential conservative voice on economic affairs is The Wall Street Journal. Perhaps it’s because conservatism disproportionately draws support from retirees who store their savings in traded financial assets. Perhaps it’s because a booming financial sector is uniquely generous with its campaign contributions. Whatever the reason, the intellectual right accords a deference to the wants and wishes of the financial industry that is seldom accorded to agriculture, manufacturing, transport or retailing.

But it’s not always true that what’s good for Goldman Sachs is good for the economy, or vice versa. Nor is what “the markets” want the same as what free-market economics require. Finance plays with other people’s money: financial disasters damage people and businesses who never participated in the fatal transaction. For that reason, financial firms are justly regulated in ways that other firms are not.
What did you take home?


  1. You should also see Client 9: The Rise and Fall of Eliot Spitzer. It's an excellent companion piece to Inside Job. Spitzer of course appeared in Inside Job and he was one of the few people who tried to litigate against the Wall Street criminals. This documentary makes the case that they were responsible for outing his hooker problem and thus bringing him down.

  2. (Craig, great minds and all that - I was actually commenting on your just posted review right now).

    I think Client 9 is on its way this week so I might have to hustle to make it (my typical lack of excitement for post-Enron Alex Gibney films notwithstanding), but yeah, I remembered from this film that Spitzer quipped about his indiscretions leading to much more than the slap on the wrist that others may have received. Ironic in any case that the guy's public profile is probably higher than it's ever been now that he's on CNN nightly. Probably enjoys it much more than elected office.

  3. I worried going in to Client 9 that it was just going to be all about the hookers, but it was about so much more. Interestingly, the film doesn't defend Spitzer's bad behavior, nor in fact does Spitzer himself, but it digs up all these other issues about why his private life matters.

  4. Daniel: Agreed that Inside Job does a tremendous job of cutting through the crap to explain how the system worked -- to the point that it almost seemed too simple. In that respect, it's an indictment of the media, always rushing to cover the latest fire, never giving us a sense of the landscape.

    I loved the way Ferguson didn't just explain how we got where we are (that "big picture") but also exposed the conflicts of interest that create that situation.

    Your lion-to-fresh meat analogy is by no means wrong, but I also don't think money is as much the issue as it seems.

    Over the past few years, I think we've all had an awakening that the people we elect to high offices or the people who land jobs with high salaries are often not fit for the job -- or at least no more fit than the majority. I think we falsely assume that, say, people who want to become politicians want to "fix" things. Well, maybe that was once true. But eventually it becomes human nature to try to be a "good" politician, and in among the inner circle of politicians, that doesn't necessarily mean doing the "right thing." And so it is on Wall Street, too.

    P.S. If I have to hear another "Wall Street vs Main Street" turn of phrase, I'm going to hang myself on Elm Street.

  5. Craig, I saw Client 9 this weekend and rather enjoyed it. I wouldn't go so far as to say I admire Spitzer for his forthrightness and accountability, but, well, it was refreshing. Stunning, really. One annoyance from Gibney, again, was the use of unnecessary title cards between segments. They didn't do much for me but show that Gibney wasn't confident enough in his transitions so he had to present it as broken into somewhat disjointed chapters.

    Jason, great point about the media completely failing over the course of two years in any effort to explain what was happening. It was all editorializing and speculating instead of summarizing and educating. For their part, whistleblowers and prosecutors could have done a better job stating their case as well.

    And I agree with Craig that you might like Client 9, which really speaks exactly to the last point you make about "good" versus "right", and the slippery moral standard to which we hold members of public office. Is it fair or unfair? Hard to say.

  6. Well Dan, had it not been for a comprehensive retrospective that spans two week sin Manhattan, I would have seen this "essential" documentary over the past few days. Even before you penned this appreciative essay, I have long been aware that's it's one of the most venerated documentaries of the year, and if this comes to pass with me as I suspect it will, it would rank with the likes of Jean-Michele Basquiat, Joan Rivers and The Tillman Story. I also know this is your genre specialty and I was keeping an eye out for your reaction here, even while knowing that Craig (and now Jason) have come in with strongly favorable reactions. I'll make it a point to come back here as soon as I watch INSIDE JOB, which hopefully will be over the upcoming days.

  7. Cheers, Sam. I still have to catch up with Tillman and Basquiat (I have the latter, need to track down the former), and Joan Rivers as well. I'm way behind this year with documentaries, relatively speaking. Funny, though, since it seems all I've been writing about lately are documentaries - and I have a few more in the hopper. It hasn't been too hard to choose documentaries like Inside Job over fare like Grown Ups or Due Date this year, but with some of the Oscar drama heading my way I'll have to spend some time in the non-documentary world again! I did see Black Swan last week and was a little jarred to be seeing a completely fictional story for what felt like the first time in months.


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