Although Charles Ferguson’s Inside Job (IMDB) has been out for a few weeks, I finally caught it last night, thanks, in part, to the fact that the film won the Oscar for Best Documentary, and I’ll admit that while I found the film to be an exhaustively researched and carefully rational explanation of What Went Wrong with the economy over the last decade, I also found it to be incredibly frustrating at times. Part of this frustration may be connected to the complexity of the manipulative practices engaged in by the various captains of high finance. As A.O. Scott observes, the film feels like a “classroom lecture” at times, a history lesson with a pedantic purpose. That lesson is basically clear: we need tighter regulation of Wall Street, but the institutions that might serve to monitor Wall Street–the federal government and academia–are often complicit with those corporations. Many of the federal regulators, appointed and reappointed by both political parties, worked for Goldman Sachs and other Wall Street firms and stood to benefit tremendously from the lax oversight.
Ferguson’s film outlines–quite literally, in that Inside Job is divided into five chapters–how the crisis began, how it was allowed to continue, and in a far less convincing coda, what can be done to reduce corruption. The film itself is highly polished, with interviews taking place in the offices and interiors of the wealthy and powerful, far different, Scott also points out, than the hand-held camerawork that we typically associate with muckraking journalism (J Hoberman makes a similar point). But even while the film avoids the theatrics we might encounter in a Michael Moore fim, Ferguson’s anger at the absurdity of derivatives, credit default swaps, and other financial shenanigans is palpable. At one point, a Columbia professor states that he left a regulatory post to revise a textbook, with Ferguson reacting just off-screen, spitting out the words, “you can’t be serious?!” Many of the interviewees deny any wrongdoing, leaving Ferguson incredulous, although in places I found myself feeling resigned, almost restless, given the image of unchecked power that Ferguson had painted.
And that brings me to my first problem with the film: as Scott points out, Ferguson avoids any systemic explanations for the crash. Although he traces out a clear complicity between (mostly Ivy League) economics faculty, Wall Street executives, and government regulators, the film seemed to stop short of imagining any alternatives to the existing system. Power corrupts. Even some of the Wall Street executives he interviewed admitted as much. There is a vague suggestion that allowing banks to become “too big to fail” helped create the problem and that the coupling of commercial banks and investment banks also led to corruption. The film also tentatively spells out a “pathology” of sorts among the Wall Street executives, noting that many of them were highly-driven risk takers who spent their nights binging on cocaine and paying thousands of dollars for high-end prostitutes, but I think this form of risk-taking could have been spelled out more explicitly (although it echoes some of the conclusions reached in Alex Gibney’s Enron documentary).
The other aspect that I found mildly frustrating was the fact that it was somewhat difficult to develop a sense of identification with any of the people who were attempting to fight corruption. Although Elliot Spitzer offers some of the more trenchant critiques of Wall Street corruption, I often felt a little unmoored, even overwhelmed, by the film. Although Scott suggests that the film should not be at “fault” for producing this sense of dispiritedness, I found it difficult not to feel as if the economic system that produced this crisis–and the rising income inequality, unemployment , and poverty that goes with it–is inevitable (Kenneth Morefield makes a similar observation). That being said, I think the anger that Ferguson channels in Inside Job may, finally, be finding expression in the protests in Madison, Columbus, and state capitals throughout the country where workers are demanding that their collective bargaining rights not be taken away.