The National Catholic Review
Karen Sue Smith
Charles Fergusons 'Inside Job'
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Inside Job,” the film by Charles Ferguson, about the economic meltdown of 2008, richly deserves an Oscar nomination, if not a win, for Best Documentary. What the film deserves most, however, is to be seen. The main point of the film—that the Great Recession was avoidable—should be seared onto the consciousness of the American public. Especially since so many contrary voices have tried to excuse the pain as an aberration, an unpredictable “perfect storm.” This timely documentary establishes that leaders who might have taken steps to mitigate or avoid the disaster refused to listen to the few experts who pointed out problems well in advance.

One prophetic voice, that of Brooksley Born, was summarily denounced. Recently dubbed “the Credit Crisis Cassandra” by the Washington Post, Born was head of the Commodities Futures Trading Commission from 1996 to 1999, when she warned that credit default swaps could lead to economic calamity. She wanted to regulate derivatives. How did her peers respond? According to the Wall Street Journal, the top financial regulators wished Born “would just shut up.” That’s just one example.

The work of Charles Ferguson, who wrote, directed and produced this outstanding film (narrated by Matt Damon), has been recognized by the Academy before. “No End in Sight,” his documentary about the lead up to the Iraq War, was nominated for an Oscar in 2008.

In comparison with, for example, Michael Moore’s contrarian documentaries, “Inside Job” is faster paced and more straightforward; that is, it relies less on games of entrapment. Still, Ferguson delivers, in close-ups, unforgettable shots of men who indict themselves by their own evasions, refusals and denials. Some interviewees exhibit unrepentant pomposity when an honest answer to Ferguson (who is always an unseen questioner, unlike the center-stage Moore), might have saved their credibility.

Viewers will see, among others: Frederic Mishkin, a member of the Federal Reserve Board of Governors, who is asked why he resigned from the board a month before the crash; Richard Fuld, former C.E.O. of Lehman Brothers; Lloyd Blankfein, chief executive of Goldman Sachs; Frank Raines, former C.E.O. of Fannie Mae; Robert Rubin, whose resumé includes a stint as a board member of Goldman Sachs, the U.S. Secretary of the Treasury under President Clinton and a director of Citigroup; and Glenn Hubbard, who was President Bush’s chief economic advisor, and is currently dean of the Columbia School of Business. Hubbard becomes indignant, then curt, during the questioning, ready to eject the interviewer from the room.

What becomes overwhelmingly clear in the film is that government (both the Bush and Obama administrations) has deep ties to the very people who occupied positions of power in the businesses at the center of the crisis. Some have made enormous sums playing both sides of the meltdown.

Henry Paulson is a prime example. Paulson led Goldman Sachs before President Bush appointed him Secretary of the Treasury. At that point Paulson was allowed to sell hundreds of millions of dollars worth of his Goldman stock tax-free, and he later funneled billions to Goldman during the bailout. None of this is, technically, illegal. But it is mercenary in the extreme and grossly unfair, given that millions of Americans have lost their jobs and their homes as a result of the misdeeds of Wall Street, unscrupulous bankers and their peers in the real estate industry.

The roles of Timothy Geithner and Lawrence Summers, before and after the fall of Lehman, are also held up for inspection. Those cast in the roles of sage or analyst include (America contributor) Charles Morris, George Soros, Elliot Spitzer (no kidding!) and Christine Lagarde, the French finance minister, who adds a touch of class as well as internationalism to the mix.

“Inside Job” moves so briskly that some viewers, unfamiliar with the world of finance, may have difficulty taking it all in during a single viewing. The antidote may be to see it more than once, or wait for the DVD. But the film is not simply educational but entertaining, a suspenseful story with a beginning, middle and an end; it uses interesting camera work throughout and sometimes stunning visuals. Not a frame is amateurish.

Overall, the documentary’s effect goes far beyond the genre’s basic purpose, which is to nail things onto the public record, especially things that have eluded it thus far, and to put that record before the public. If not completely convincing on every point, the film makes a coherent argument that one must labor to dispute or refute.

Some of the documentary’s drawbacks cannot be helped: since most viewers are not in a position to influence national monetary policy, for example, such a film can lead one to feel helpless, even cynical not only about corporate greed but about the potential of government to successfully regulate business and avoid a future financial meltdown. Finally, the film does little to inspire hope. That may have to do with the fact that, although the recession has been declared over, the effects are still debilitating and seem to be worsening, as we are seeing in Europe as well as the United States.

Anyone who wishes to understand more about what caused the current economic crisis would do well to see “Inside Job.” The film, along with a spate of reflective books and articles, could help to inform and rouse the public. Too often those who are informed are not roused; those who are roused are not informed. We need to be both.

Karen Smith is editorial director of America.

Comments

C Walter Mattingly | 12/27/2010 - 11:33am
Interesting that one of the few Ms. Smith mentioned above as one of Fegurson's good guys, a financial sage, in his quasi-documentary is George Soros, who is the only felon convicted of financial misdealings in the bunch. His crime? Insider trading in France, the nation whose representation adds an elitist "touch of class" to the proceedings, along with Spitzer, I guess.
Naive comments above, such as that anyone would be surprised that greed exists in America, where the majority of mortgagees of the so called "liar loans" exaggerated his/her income by 25 percent or more to obtain a loan, commiting the felony of fraud in the process, is oblivious to literally tens of thousands of mostly middle-class borrowers who are escaping felony prosecutions. There is plenty of greed in America and elsewhere, and it is most prosperous when it is encouraged by misguided government policy. "Squeezing Uncle Onion" is,unfortunately, widely practiced at many levels.
Edward Visel | 12/18/2010 - 2:39pm

These movies always make me suspicious. Not that Wall Street is saintly, but it is a necessary institution that is incredibly difficult to regulate, given that regulation to make things safer costs bankers – i.e. campaign contributors – lots of money.

There is plenty to critique on Wall Street, but the tone with which it is done is important. Demonization so the rest of us can feel morally superior is not helpful, even if it's popular. Instead, the first step is to understand what is actually happening (which very few people actually do), and then to see what could be changed.

This review sounds mildly uninformed, and would probably be more useful written by someone closer to these issues.

Mike Evans | 12/17/2010 - 2:37pm
Perhaps some good will come from people just asking the right questions. But I am afraid that all that will result is more cynicism and despair. It's like watching Michael Moore, 'W', 'War games' and 'Wall Street.' Most people just want to disbelieve that such malicious and nefarious greed is actually possible today in good ole America.
Tom Maher | 12/15/2010 - 10:15pm
Very galling to call this movie an educational documentary when it misinforms the public of the real causes of the recesssion and and assigns blame for the financial meltbown on many innocent people abiliy doing their job.

Blaming Secreetary of the Treasury Hank Paulsown is especially false. Hank Paulson recongnized the severity and ugnecy of the problem an acted decisively to thwart the total collapse of the United States fiancial system. Had the banks and fiancial systems failed as they did in the 1930s the U.S. would have suffer a decades long catastrophe. Paulson acted with great resolve and ingenuity in mobilizing government to halt the bank and fiancial instutions failure and succeed in doing so.

The worse aspect of the Great Recession is the great self-serving misinformation acconting of the casue of the recession and the capricous assignment of blame as one of sinsiter moral conspiraacy failure rather than the acutal casue of a system-wide failure to recognize and prevent a massive hosing bubble do to the availability of way too much easy credit so widely avialble to all. This is not unlike the 1929 stock market crash due to too much easy credit being made available to by stocks whcih casue the stock prices to go sky-high and then crash becasue this stock price bubble like any market bubble can not be sustained. The serial collapse of banks and finacial institution followed. Fortuanetly we had in place from the Great Depresions institutions such as the Federal Depoosit Insurance Corporation to prevent savings depositors from losing any savings. No bank depsoits were lost as the were massively in the 1930s.

The government resposne led by Treasury Secretary Paulson was very effective and prevented a far worse outcome.

No thanks to America's Editorial Director for this very misleading review of this movie and praise of the movie's falseness.

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