Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
Need to raise your blood pressure in a hurry? This is the docu for you. If your ears aren't burning red with anger twenty minutes in, you must be in top percentage of U.S. Citizens, wealth-wise. To make us feel better, this show might have begun with a clip from John Ford's classic Stagecoach, specifically the scene where the scurrilous banker character is caught and hauled away in irons, screaming in outrage. Somewhere in the extras for Inside Job, director Charles Ferguson says that the financial meltdown of 2008 was a bank robbery committed by the president of the bank. After watching the show, we're of the same mind: compared to the Wall Street pirates, thieves that walk into a bank with guns are far more honest about what they do.
I've already seen several documentaries on the 2008 meltdown, and none of them has been particularly useful in formulating a 'big picture' of the crisis. One docu concentrated on the mortgage crisis in a way that made us feel frustrated and angry and little else. Inside Job expertly tells us what happened, why it happened, and who's responsible. It's not a partisan docu. Although Reagan initiated the snowball of Wall Street deregulation and greed and George W. Bush opened the floodgates for abuse, President Clinton promoted the same destructive policies.
Inside Job's passages of explanation and exposition are set over images of modern cities and the beautiful corporate headquarters of the handful of Wall Street brokerages and investment banks that, the docu maintains, have become the acting government of the United States. Director Ferguson doesn't need to exaggerate when he explains that the big push to "lower taxes" benefits the top 1% of the wealthy -- one sequence is a calmly-edited image orgy of beautiful mansions, country estates, Manhattan penthouses, exotic cars, gleaming yachts and private jets. One brokerage head owns six private jets, plus a helicopter. Brokers frequent expensive houses of prostitution and spend fortunes on cocaine. All the while, the docu explains, the average American is both poorer and less well educated than his parents were: a quality college education is exceeding the reach of most citizens.
In fewer minutes than you'd think, the docu tackles the hard facts of the meltdown, defining terms and showing that the "puzzle" is less complicated than it looks. When cornered by reporters or investigators, the Wall Street thieves tend to answer direct questions by telling the questioner that the answers are too complicated to understand. Only the genius bankers have the necessary knowledge and they'd prefer to regulate themselves. Nevertheless, after watching Inside Job one will understand the role played by newly invented investment "products": derivatives, credit default swaps, toxic CDOs.
The deregulation band wagon launched by the Reagan administration opened the financial industry to risky practices that, once the mathematical experts worked out the details of the "complex financial products" being sold, gave enormous profits to the industry while leaving the risk to others. Ferguson charts the incestuous relationship between Wall Street, various Presidents' financial advisors and the regulators. Officials that came from the industry and would return to it acted as cheerleaders for Wall Street, while regulators did essentially nothing. Ferguson shines a light on the little-publicized fact that many academic experts in the most prestigious schools in the country are essentially on the Wall Street payroll, receiving hundreds of thousands of dollars yearly for consultancy work.
Inside Job is particularly good at explaining practices that enriched Wall Street while destroying everyone else, sucking the wealth from the people who actually earned the money. We see the mortgage default crisis as an enormous Ponzi scheme that used predatory lending to inflate a giant balloon of false wealth. The big investment banks were able to loan money to home buyers who couldn't possibly pay it back, and through credit default swaps, profit when the housing market collapsed. Wall Street companies laundered money, defrauded investors and cooked their books. Ferguson establishes that this wasn't accidental but an inside job, that they knew very well that they were gaming the system. "Deregulation" means removing the legal barriers to unbridled greed.
If anything in the show makes one angry, it's watching the industry leaders squirm and offer pitiful prevarications as they testify before congress. It's too complicated for you to understand, they in effect keep repeating. It's a shame they aren't wearing prison jumpsuits and iron manacles. No kidding, this is what the facts make us feel at this point in the game.
The show uses the example of Iceland to show how deregulation destroyed a thriving and prudent economy and as a side effect despoiled the country with rapacious, ecologically unsound industries. Perhaps more disturbing is Ferguson's assessment of where things are now (2010): Almost nobody in the Wall Street culture has been prosecuted or arrested. This is despite the fact that the conspiracy of silence might be easily broken by Wall Street's weakness for whores and cocaine -- the culprits could be reached through their vices. Europe has retrenched and re-regulated its financial industries but the U.S. government under Obama has seen no meaningful reform. The same culprits are back at their trade, spending millions lobbying to suppress any new legislation to curb the industry's excesses or limit its power. Industry bonuses are bigger than ever. One interviewee says right out that, "It's a Wall Street Government".
Meanwhile, millions have lost their life savings and the U.S. economy was dealt a near death blow. Millions of jobs have been lost, most of which aren't coming back. With the property and sales tax base way down, state and local governments can't function. Politicians still talk about "stimulating" the economy by keeping taxes down, but that just funnels more money to the wealthy.
Inside Job is an excellent alternative to snarky docus that use sarcasm and irony to make their points. Michael Moore directs attention to his own celebrity, and even if one likes his personality, it's no fun seeing him engage in ambush interviews where the most active ingredient is his indignant predisposition. We voters don't need self-appointed Galahads, we need sound advice from sources with no partisan axe to grind, that is strong enough to cut through the information quicksand of modern media. You don't watch Inside Job for a handful of funny "gotcha" moments. The joke is on us, at all times.
I reviewed Charles Ferguson's No End in Sight, a superior examination of the criminal mishandling of the Iraq war. Inside Job is truly about a subject none of us can ignore. A grassroots movement out there (financed by ultra-wealthy industrialists) screams that "big government" is the problem. The solution to the nation's problems is to re-regulate the financial industry and purge its influence on a government that is supposed to protect its citizens and not a select group of financial billionaires. To this viewer Inside Job played as a worthy educational tool -- certainly to be questioned and cross-referenced -- that could do a lot of good.
Sony Classics' Blu-ray of Inside Job is a sparking transfer of this handsome production, in color and widescreen. We have to admire the judgment of editors Chad Beck and Adam Bolt, whose organizational skills make Inside Job communicate its ideas so clearly. They're also listed as co-writers, which is exactly what docu editors do when they give shape to a mountain of undigested interviews. It's nice to see title credits that reflect that fact.
Inside Job comes with a making-of docu that serves to explain where Charles Ferguson is coming from; several of his main interviewees are contacts and friends from his own business exploits -- his company was in early on the Internet business and developed FrontPage. If this director has some hidden motive for making Inside Job, I don't see it. Ferguson and his producer Audrey Marrs also contribute a full-feature commentary. Also included on the Blu-ray is a large selection deleted scenes and outtakes.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Inside Job Blu-ray rates:
Supplements: Making-of docu, commentary with director and producer, deleted scenes
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: February 22, 2011
DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2011 Glenn Erickson
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