Wall Street/Maim Street
Inside Job, documentary, rated PG-13, Regal DeVargas, 3 chiles
I watched this film twice, just to confirm my suspicions that 1) the financial world is intentionally confusingly complex, and 2) that strange sound in the background during both screenings was indeed me chewing the inside of my own face off in utter disgust at that world.
Director Charles Ferguson, who earned an Oscar nomination for his No End in Sight doc about the allied occupation of Iraq, returns with this scathing exposé about the ongoing economic bloodbath. If you’ve been led to believe that global financial markets took an unexpected dive in 2007 and 2008 and that recovery/reform under the Obama administration signaled a needed change in Wall Street and Washington, D.C., attitudes, then you need to watch this film twice, too. You won’t like what you learn, but you’ll appreciate the lesson — however blandly it’s delivered by Ferguson, with an onslaught of bar charts and other graphics and dry narration by Matt Damon.
Ferguson launches his investigation into the worldwide deregulation shell game in Iceland, where a careless and greedy banking system created an out-of-control borrowing culture
in 2007 that left the country’s economy in ruins. At the same time, American accounting firms and credit-rating agencies declared Iceland’s banking system stable and, to quote Damon’s sarcastic voiceover, “wonderful.” Apparently, what’s good for Iceland is good for the United States — and has been for quite some time.
Cue Peter Gabriel’s song “Big Time,” with the lines, “I’ve had enough, I’m getting out to the city, the big, big city / I’ll be a big noise with all the big boys, so much stuff I will own.” After the New York City skyline comes elegantly into view, the film cuts to David H. McCormick, who held a senior position in the treasury department during the George W. Bush administration. “Would you support legal controls on executive pay?” Ferguson asks him. “Um … no, no I would not.” And so begins a revealing and frustrating story of how greed, ignorance, nepotism, back-patting, and bad policy led to one of the worst economic crises in American history.
Iceland’s recent banking woes, we learn, amount to chump change compared to what has occurred in the United States over the past 30 years. The film’s glut of identifying captions, bill titles, dollar figures, and graphics boil down to a rather rote but well-organized description of how it all happened, from the savings and loan scandal of the 1980s, to Clinton-era deregulation, to the subprime bubble and bloated Bush II-era derivatives markets that followed, during which many financial institutions were placing bets on the failure of loans they told their own clients to invest in with confidence.
“When you start thinking you can create something out of nothing,” says Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, “it’s very difficult to resist.” Inside Job provides many examples of this, highlighting the complicity and blind faith of politicos and financial leaders over the past three decades. A rogues’ gallery of co-conspirators emerges through one-on-one interviews, with the occasional subject asking for the cameras to be turned off and, in one case, daring Ferguson to continue his confrontational line of questioning. “You have three minutes. Give it your best shot,” says economist Glenn Hubbard, who helped manufacture the controversial 2003 Bush tax cuts that played a major role in the recent midterm elections.
There are some awkward moments in the film’s interview segments, such as a scene with former New York attorney general and governor Eliot Spitzer, who resigned in disgrace as governor in 2008 after being tied to a prostitution ring. After a narrative description of a Bloomberg.com article suggesting that prostitution, strip clubs, and illegal drugs account for 5 percent of derivative executives’ business expenses, anything Spitzer has to say loses its credibility. (Which reminds me: “Obama mamas,” you’re not going to like what you discover about the president throughout this film — although it doesn’t involve a hooker and an ounce of blow, if that’s any consolation.) Spitzer’s appearance serves the purpose of reminding audiences that almost nobody’s hands appear to be clean within the inner circles of this ongoing debacle.
The reason it remains ongoing may be one of this film’s biggest eye-openers. Remember Hubbard, the architect of the 2003 Bush tax cuts? He’s also the dean of Columbia Business School. Hubbard and a host of others in positions of unfathomable academic power are exposed as present-day cheerleaders of business philosophies that led to the economic crisis in the first place. Discovering that these men are charged with shaping the financial minds of the future while reaping huge consulting fees from corporations that owe American taxpayers a trillion-plus-dollar payback (not to mention an apology) is enough to make even the most cautious investor hit up Google for instructions on torch-building and castle-storming. Remind yourself while watching this film that this is all actually happening right now, while the same corporations continue to dole out obnoxiously large bonuses to their board members — as the national jobless rate hovers at around 10 percent.
Working desperately to preserve the status quo: Henry Paulson, Ben Bernanke, and Tim Geithner