Inside Job

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Paul Volcker, whisky in hand, sits for an interview in “Inside Job.”

Inside Job (2010)

Written and directed by Charles Ferguson
Run Time: 108 minutes
MPAA Rating: PG-13

(See video preview below.)

Inside Job is an excoriating indictment of the investment banking industry whose free market excesses led to the financial market crisis of 2008, and ultimately tipped the global economy into a long recession that continues to this day, over two years later. It’s also a painstakingly researched, slickly produced and emotionally absorbing film that takes you on a dizzying ride through the last 40 years of big finance and rampant high-risk speculation. After nearly two hours of learning what literally went on behind the scenes, you feel like you’ve been watching a heist film narrative—an Ocean’s Fourteen—rather than a documentary about mortgage foreclosures, leveraged securities and collateralized debt obligations.

The man at the head of this amazing venture is the diligent and courageous Charles Ferguson, a self-styled public policy wonk who has made only one other film, No End in Sight, a similarly accusatory documentary about the false presumptions and lack of preparations for occupation when the U.S. went to war with Iraq. Inside Job could almost be seen as a sequel to No End in Sight, or at least part of a diptych. Both films go straight to the top of the pyramid in their accusations, right to CEOs, U.S. presidents, and the advisors and other minions right underneath them. Both films show men in power (yes, almost all are men) wielding their power with little concern for consequences. And both show these men as having little moral authority, only a scary sense of entitlement and a will to power that seems unhindered by intelligence or foresight. (From what I’ve gathered from Ferguson’s two films, moral turpitude seems to be more often than not a prerequisite for becoming a bigwig.)

But the two films differ in degree as well as subject matter. The scathing but still rather reserved No End in Sight reveals incompetence as the main failing among the higher-ups during the occupation of Iraq. A more outwardly incensed Inside Job veers towards greater sins, such as greed and gluttony, and the very real crime of fraud and its slimy bedfellow, conflict of interest. Ferguson is convinced that crimes were committed and that many top executives should be doing time in jail rather than merely receiving a stern upbraiding by Congress as they continue to get hefty bonuses.

Ferguson’s utter conviction of wrongdoing is what brings Inside Job to the level of a diatribe; though it’s not as outrageous as a Michael Moore documentary, it is still full of outrage. But Ferguson’s rhetoric is very different from Moore’s. Inside Job comes to its accusations through careful argumentation and cool-headed analysis. Lacking the easy, outspoken manner and scruffy charm of Michael Moore, Charles Ferguson instead relies on his searing intellect and a penchant for extensive research and a thorough explanation of events, although we must acknowledge Ferguson’s editing choices as Inside Job‘s own CEO. By the time we see video coverage of Goldman Sachs’ CEO Lloyd Blankfein being grilled by Senator Carl Levin during a congressional hearing, we have a pretty clear idea of what a derivative is and how several administrations and their treasury secretaries allowed its unfettered growth as a financial investment. We also have a pretty clear idea by then why Ferguson believes fraud was committed. Ferguson’s inclusion of the video coverage is a brilliant editing choice. We get to see an insider squirm as a gray-haired statesman literally accuses him of selling crap to investors.

There are other inclusions that clearly lay blame on other high-level players. Well-known economist and former Harvard president Larry Summers in particular gets Ferguson’s keen appraisal. Along with others, notably then Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan, Summers was instrumental in keeping derivatives and credit default swaps from regulatory controls during his tenure as Clinton’s Treasury secretary.

This is just the tip of the iceberg. There is so much more that will make your jaw drop, especially if you’re like me and avoid the financial pages for the Arts and Leisure section. It turns out there’s a big boys’ club on Wall Street that has managed to keep the government out of their business for decades. They have even managed to infiltrate the Obama administration; after Obama had assured voters that regulation of financial institutions was a top priority during his campaign, after winning the election, he nevertheless appointed Wall Street’s friend from the Clinton era, the aforementioned Larry Summers, as the director of his National Economic Council. (Curiously, the day after I watched a screening of Inside Job, Summers announced that he would be stepping down from his job at the end of the year. Is this cause for hope? Did this film have anything to do with the decision?)

Not surprisingly, none of the current crop of government economists and investment banking CEOs agreed to be interviewed for the film. Instead, Ferguson gathers an interesting bunch of economics advisors and former financial market officials, many of whom probably wish now they hadn’t agreed to be interviewed. Under the scrutiny of Ferguson’s camera and his incisive interrogation (and aided by some well-timed editing), several of the interviewees come across as evasive and even, sadly, dishonest. In No End in Sight, Ferguson was able to get people to spill the beans on their bosses. For Inside Job, he relies in large part on getting the people he interviews to shoot themselves in the foot.

The worst self-inflicted blows go to Frederic Mishkin and Glenn Hubbard, two economists who sputter obfuscations, or in the case of Hubbard, actually resort to pompous indignation when Ferguson’s questions get too pointed. It’s fun to watch Ferguson take these men down, but also dispiriting. Hubbard is now the dean of the Columbia University Business School, where Mishkin is a professor. Are these the kinds of guys who are teaching our future economists?

Among the heavyweights who did agree to appear, Paul Volcker (holding a glass of whisky and relaxing in a boardroom chair), comes across like Yoda saying, “I told you so.” Volcker is a long-time proponent of market regulation who served as chairman of the Federal Reserve from 1979 to 1987 under Presidents Carter and Reagan, before Reagan replaced him with Alan Greenspan. He is now serving as chairman of Obama’s National Economic Advisory Board. Larger than life even onscreen, Volcker serves as ballast to help us swim through the muck, although at times he looks just like one of “them.” For some of us, Inside Job is still a second-year course in economics, and to our eyes, Volcker comes across less like a wise elder statesman than a casino kingpin, especially with that drink in his hand. Only the tired-looking consumer advocate Robert Gnaizda, former president of the Greenlining Institute in Berkeley, looks like a man of the people. Oh wait, that’s right; he is.

Ferguson takes great pains to appear politically neutral in the film, condemning Democratic and Republican administrations alike (the Clinton administration gets a particularly sound lashing). Inside Job may have no real ideological agenda (Ferguson calls himself a pragmatist), but it’s hard to say what kind of effect it will have. One thing is for sure: it hasn’t made its director any friends in the current White House. What’s more, Inside Job‘s denunciation of the destabilizing financial practices of big banks and the corruption on Wall Street could play into the hands of the Tea Party movement, whose biggest weapon is bashing Obama for bailing out the banking industry. I’m no expert on politics, but after watching Inside Job, I distinctly felt like it’s the same as it ever was, and if I weren’t a staunch liberal and a Democrat, who knows what I’d do.

Ferguson has every right to be pissed off, just as we all should be, and I applaud him for his insistence on setting the record straight and wanting to hold accountable those who screwed up the global economy. He’s managed to make a slickly entertaining film about the world of finance, narrated by America’s all-star liberal celebrity Matt Damon no less, and the film makes a great case against Wall Street. But Ferguson is playing the big leagues, and one man’s outrage could be another man’s opportunity. Let’s hope Fox News doesn’t do any well-timed editing of Inside Job to make the Democrats out to be Wall Street’s puppets.

[Caveat lector: I'm not saying that I'd rather Ferguson had kept his mouth shut. It's just that the coming midterm elections are making me a bit anxious.]

Beverly Berning

Beverly Berning has recently begun her fourth career as a high school teacher of French and Italian, but her love of film remains steadfast. A former film student who aspired to be just like her idols Woody Allen, Erik Rohmer and Charlie Kaufman, she has been writing reviews for Culturevulture since 2006.