"Why should a financial engineer be paid four times to a hundred times as much as a real engineer? A real engineer builds bridges. A financial engineer builds dreams. And when those dreams turn out to be nightmares, other people pay for it." — Andrew Sheng, chief adviser, China Banking Regulatory Commission, in Inside Job.
Political scientist and author Charles Ferguson made his film debut in 2007 with No End in Sight, an account of civilian mismanagement in post-war Iraq that stands as the very best of the many nonfiction films that have emerged from the Afghan and Iraq wars. No End in Sight is a thorough, sober account of a man-made tragedy, and so is Ferguson's second film, Inside Job, which examines the global economic crisis that erupted in the midst of the 2008 presidential election.
Ferguson takes on multiple roles as writer, director, and producer here, and while he never appears on-screen, his voice is sometimes audible, pushing hard — but never grandstanding — against interview subjects such as financial industry lobbyists, Bush administration Treasury Department officials, and biz-school academics attempting to downplay their conflicts of interest.
Ferguson's film is a relentless, merciless search for accountability based on a simple, clearly stated premise: that the economic crisis was not an accident, but rather a predictable result of an out-of-control industry.
In telling this story, Ferguson doesn't begin in late 2008, when Lehman Brothers and AIG fell. He starts, instead, in the early '80s, at a period following 40 years of post-Great Depression economic growth. Ferguson cites Reagan-era financial deregulation, which allowed once small, traditional investment banks to go public and fueled the savings-and-loan crisis of the late '80s, as the beginning of a 30-year process.
The erosion of economic stability, as Ferguson tells it, was continued during the Clinton administration by figures such as Robert Rubin, Larry Summers, and Alan Greenspan and accelerated during the George W. Bush administration, when practices such as subprime mortgages and predatory lending exploded in an increasingly corrupt, risky, and leveraged financial system.
None of this is new, but what's special here — okay, stomach-turning — is the concision and clarity with which Ferguson marshals his arguments.
There are subgenres of documentaries. Some, like Hoop Dreams or the films of Barbara Kopple (Harlan County U.S.A.), put you in the middle of intimate but resonant stories as they're happening. Others, most notably the films of Michael Moore (Fahrenheit 9/11), present the filmmaker as on-camera focal point. Others — such as the works of Errol Morris (Gates of Heaven, Fast Cheap and Out of Control) — are character or subculture studies.
Inside Job, like No End in Sight before it, belongs to a doc subgenre that doesn't tend toward dynamism — the big-issue overview rooted in talking-head interviews. But based on these two towering films, no one is making this kind of documentary at a higher level. These films move Ferguson into the very top ranks of nonfiction filmmakers.
Ferguson organizes Inside Job like a legal brief in five sections —"How We Got Here," "The Bubble (2001-2007)," "The Crisis," "Accountability," and "Where We Are Now." The film assembles its information and constructs its arguments using interviews, on-screen charts and graphs, and Ferguson's calm but forceful writing, voiced here by actor Matt Damon. The talking heads on display are a distinguished lot, among them, former Fed chairman Paul Volcker, financier George Soros, Congressman Barney Frank, foreign statesmen, and various academics, governmental officials, and industry insiders.
There is also the "Wall Street Madam" and a therapist with industry clients, who testify to some of the sketchier aspects of the industry's culture. But Ferguson also moves past the insiders at times to show the wider impact of the financial collapse — linking corrupt actions at Goldman Sachs directly to the job losses of millions of Chinese migrant workers, then interviewing one of these workers; juxtaposing aerial shots of Hamptons estates with a Florida tent city and talking to a laid-off construction worker living there.
Ferguson doesn't dumb down any of this material, but his presentation is lucid and clear enough for most attentive viewers to follow. Even after seeing the film, I'm not sure I could really explain the difference between derivatives, collateralized debt obligations, and credit default swaps (and even Soros seems confused). But you don't have to master industry terminology to see how the system was corrupted and then collapsed.
The tone of Inside Job is one of simmering anger. Rage emerges from an accumulation of facts, not from operatic prodding. And this full-scale undressing of the American financial industry leaves us in a present where not enough has changed, with five financial services lobbyists for each member of Congress and a president who campaigned on reform but has, so far, delivered minimal change.
All the details in place, Ferguson pivots to advocacy at the end: "For decades, the American financial system was stable and safe. But then something changed. The financial industry turned its back on society, corrupted our political system, and plunged the world economy into crisis. At enormous cost, we've avoided disaster and are recovering, but the men and institutions that caused the crisis are still in power. And that needs to change."
Inside Job ends with a sense of hope — or tries to — but its depiction of a permanent government beholden to the financial industry is so thorough that the suggestion that we can truly reverse this 30-year wave feels, sadly, like the film's only false note.
Opens Friday, November 12th
Studio on the Square