Inside Job (2010)
Directed by: Charles Ferguson

Premise: A documentary about the 2008 financial meltdown.

What Works: There have been several documentaries about the economic problems leading to and stemming from the 2008 collapse of AIG and Lehman Brothers, and Inside Job is among the best of these films. Understanding the collapse and how and why it happened requires a grasp of a lot of complicated relationships between banks, insurance companies, homeowners, and government agencies. Inside Job is able to take all of that information and distill it into a two hour film that is understandable to a layperson without dumbing it down. Far from a dry economic tract, Inside Job plays like a political thriller and it is as exciting, intriguing, and frightening as any piece of dramatic filmmaking. The picture provides a broad timeline, extending back more than thirty years prior to the 2008 crash and demonstrates how social and economic trends eventually led to the collapse, while also pointing out moments in which it could have been prevented. Complementing its broad timeline is an equally broad canvas. Although many of the key figures and actions take place in New York and Washington D.C., the film makes connections between improprieties in American economics and the financial calamities in other countries. But what makes Inside Job all the more impressive is its ability to show the way in which corruption seeped through the culture.  This is not just a story of fraud but of the way greed rotted the financial and moral integrity of society. The anecdotes of widespread drug use and prostitution parallel the seedy and dishonest actions taken by major players on Wall Street and the film effectively makes that connection to caricature a subculture careening out of control and infecting everything it comes into contact with. This pernicious nature brought out effectively in the film’s exploration of the way greed tainted not only financial institutions and government agencies but the way economics is conceived and discussed in academia. For those who have followed the recent economic problems and watched similar documentaries, much of Inside Job may be familiar but in the last half hour the picture demonstrates how major academic institutions and their faculty, namely Frederick Mishkin and Glenn Hubbard of the Columbia Business School, sold their integrity in the pursuit of ideological and financial goals and provided academic cover for what the film exposes as illegitimate and harmful business practices. This is some of the most damning footage of the film because it reveals the pervasiveness of the corruption and the extent to which it has warped our understandings of ourselves.

What Doesn’t: The ending of Inside Job attempts to spur the audience to action but it isn’t clear what that action ought to be. The crisis that the film characterizes, both financial and ethical, is so enormous that it is daunting for the viewer to grasp how to solve it. Inside Job does not lend itself toward a political solution; both of the United States’ major political parties are indicted in the film. The film wants to be empowering but it does such a thorough job of depressing the audience with the enormity of the problem that anything less than a radical response would seem insufficient.

DVD extras: Commentary track, featurette.

Bottom Line: Among the many agitprop documentaries that have been made in recent years, Inside Job is one of the most essential. Although it is short on solutions, the clarity with which the film distills the causes and effects of the financial crisis makes it essential viewing.

 

Episode: #351 (August 7, 2011)