By Armond White
For those who missed that unexpected satirical graphics lecture on the current recession that capped Adam McKay’s The Other Guys, Inside Job is the next best thing. With entertaining clarity, writer-director Charles Ferguson explains what caused the recession that began September 15, 2008. Not a comic like McKay, Ferguson seriously chronicles the twisty financial dealings and recondite legislative details of deregulation that started back in the Reagan administration and eventually let the banks go wild with subprime loans and kickback benefits. He traces more recent government history that led to the current economic meltdown, but then Ferguson gets caught up in satisfying the “Gotcha!” urge that ruins most recent docs—like his 2008 anti-Bush, Iraq War screed No End in Sight.
This time, as Ferguson comes close to Gotcha—uncovering the family tree of government appointments and greedy corporate privilege that led to lost jobs, foreclosed homes and banking bailouts—he backs down. He not only drops his entertaining intelligibility, he loses the deeper subject that would give this documentary power.
It isn’t enough that Inside Job ends on a muckraking note—“Some things are worth fighting for”—which calls for what? Revolution? Putsch? Anarchy? Narrator Matt Damon mouths Ferguson’s glib sentiments, appealing to populist anger (rubber-stamped by an ad-blurb promising the film “will get you boiling mad”). Simplifying the complex of establishment corruption prevents Ferguson from being the Patrick Henry of the digital age. His true interest is subtler than pamphleteering: He likes examining the structure of America’s power elite like Lewis Lapham’s The American Ruling Class.
No End in Sight disappointed because Ferguson settled for Bush-bashing as an end-all, blame-all explanation and absolved the workings of the government bureaucracy (whistle-blowers) he had discovered. Inside Job, as its title suggests, is more clear-headed about white-collar guilt, perhaps because financial misdeeds are so common—so implicitly understood—that Ferguson doesn’t immediately go into high-dudgeon. Instead, he gets right to the source of political and managerial arrogance. He begins with the folly of politicians, using the example of Iceland privatizing its own banks then destroying its economy. It is both a warning and an allegory. After all, what really offends Ferguson and drives his filmmaking is officialdom: the workings of egotistical authority from the Ivy League to Wall Street to Washington, D.C.
This linkage is fascinating beyond the recession itself (John Kirby and Lapham got at it definitively in the little-seen The American Ruling Class). Ferguson might deal with it exclusively some day, given that Inside Job shows improvement, avoiding No End in Sight’s partisanship. The financial mismanagement shared by Democrat and Republican administrations over the past three decades suggests Ferguson’s viewpoint is growing, getting closer to what most recent docs lack: understanding.
Inside Job provides financial summaries and information that most mainstream newsmedia haven’t. Still, the despair and anger and suspicion it arouses needs a place to go if this is going to be better than McKay’s lark or a feel-righteous Daily Show episode. Ferguson’s explication requires even greater feeling than the sarcasm of Peter Gabriel’s “Big Time” that opens the film; it requires art such as Oliver Stone provided in Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps, where stock market megalomania was put in human, rather than tabloid, terms. Critics disparaged Stone’s thrilling exposé because it didn’t provide them with easy castigation. (They always expect Stone to be a less conscientious, imaginative and skillful director than he turns out to be.) Money Never Sleeps understands the characteristics of bureaucracy that Ferguson glosses in Inside Job, yet struggles to comprehend.
Ferguson’s method (he’s a political science doctorate from M.I.T. and Brookings Institute fellow) is to follow the career paths of bureaucrats and government appointees like Charles Keating, Henry Paulson, Alan Greenspan, Larry Summers, Ben Bernanke and the lofty fiats of Reagan, Clinton, Bush and, briefly, Obama. He outlines the culprits who de-regulated the banks long before Bush took office and currently have come back to justify their earlier mistakes. This clarity opposes the fat cats’ sleight-of-highhandedness—as when quoting Greenspan’s contemptuous evasion, “If you had a PhD in mathematics, you couldn’t understand whether de-regulation was good for you.”
Inside Job becomes rousing when Ferguson gets a bureaucrat in his crosshairs, like disingenuous lobbyist Scott Talbot, fumbling Fred Mishkin, hard-nosed David McCormick or short-tempered academic-factotum Glenn Hubbard, who dares him, “Take your best shot.” Ferguson counters them with a series of exclamations: “For me that’s clearly not true!” “You must be joking!” “You can’t be serious!” Ferguson’s querulous tone departs from the film’s cool, five-part structure because he can’t hide his ire which comes from his distaste (same as No End in Sight) for the temperament of these prevaricating pols—such as economist and former Federal Reserve Chairman Paul Volcker, shown reclining with a glass of scotch in his hand. And the best part of Inside Job tracks these guys to their lairs.
“Does Columbia Business School have a conflict-of-interest problem?” Ferguson asks, hunting down the strange, suspicious connection between academic sponsorship and government promotion. He comes close to revealing how academic elitism and privilege facilitates Wall Street’s personal interests and the government’s collusion. When Ferguson details the history of Treasury Secretary and Federal Reserve positions, he’s on fascinating, dangerous ground—meekly exposing Obama’s elitist agenda. But this calls for something more than a Gotcha movie.
Consider that Inside Job’s one clear villain, Larry Summers (recent Obama Cabinet resignee, past Harvard University president and former Department of Treasury Secretary from 1999 to 2001) is also a hero in The Social Network. The only way to escape this hall of mirrors is for Ferguson to abandon Michael Moore-style denunciation and get closer to the human propensity for power and self-interest. If Inside Job were a great movie it would rebuke the asinine class/ethnic games of The Social Network, in which Summers is used to humiliate the CGI Winklevoss Twins. Ferguson hasn’t gotten there yet. His poli-sci fascination still needs to attain Oliver Stone’s insight or even the depth that Marcel Ophüls brought to his 1970s documentaries, where humanity was more important than political stance. If Ferguson means to surpass the purely topical snark of The Other Guys, he needs to realize this: Compassion can also be a clarifying tool.
Directed by Charles Ferguson
Runtime: 108 min.