Many know about how the 2008 financial crash happened: Widespread deregulation of investment banks and savings and loan companies, new homeowners with bad credit, and an expanding gap between America's rich and poor as a result. The striking insight the new documentary Inside Job offers is that experts predicted the crash over a decade before it happened, and that, rather than listen, financial heads gave themselves bonuses. Charles Ferguson's film, more than anything, proves a vital piece of journalism.
But it takes a while for the documentary to become one. A goofy prologue discusses the recession in Iceland, then a parade of global market officials offer split-second soundbites about the bad shape America's in. Matt Damon's voice narrates archive clips of people signing bills; meanwhile, the soundtrack offers songs like "Big Time" and "Taking Care of Business," making one think the filmmakers threw their radios out after 1988.
One didn't get the same sense of rehashing from Ferguson's previous film, 2005's No End in Sight, a comprehensive walk through the botched Iraq War campaign. Some critics derided No End in Sight as a feature-length PowerPoint presentation, but, in fact, it was a logical, even systematic linear argument that used relevant footage and statistics to make its points.
Yet the most compelling sight in No End in Sight was of former Bush administration officials admitting their mistakes on camera (Colonel Paul Hughes summing it up with, "There are nights when I don't sleep very well"). They gave the movie both authority and catharsis. For viewers like me who responded positively, the feeling walking out was that we had finally heard the truth.
The financial crash, by contrast, doesn't have a clear narrative with name-recognition heroes and villains. One of the greatest engines behind it was how even the government lost track of who had money when, and where it was going. Finding characters and events amid economic jargon isn't as easy as pointing a finger at Donald Rumsfeld, and so, as Inside Job's first half hour progresses, you fear that Ferguson's new film will stay general and diffuse.
It's then that Inside Job becomes an essential movie. While No End in Sight's subjects speak truth to power, Inside Job demonstrates how the people in power are still lying. Unlike No End's interviewees, the financial officers here frequently squirm, duck, and avoid Ferguson's questions. The director finally snaps at Frederic Mishkin, a former member of the Federal Reserve's Board of Governors who resigned a month before the crash, he says, so that he could revise a textbook. "I'm sorry, I'm sure that your textbook is important and widely read," Ferguson interrupts, "But didn't you think that more important things were going on in the world?"
He questions his subjects with increasing aggression, and unlike what many other documentarians in Michael Moore's wake would do, he keeps himself off camera so that the focus stays on them. They respond by not responding, like the government official who has no comment save that he doesn't regret being on AIG's board, or the one that demands that Ferguson turn the camera off. Bush's Chief Economic Advisor, Glenn Hubbard, barks, "You have three more minutes. Give it your best shot!"
You might not believe what you're seeing and hearing, until you learn about the relationships between business and government; for example, Henry Paulson, the former Treasury Secretary, headed Goldman Sachs before he took the job, was allowed to sell $485 million worth of stock tax-free, and later afforded his old company $14 billion during the bailout that was ostensibly for AIG. "It's a Wall Street government," an expert says during the film, speaking in the present tense; Obama pitched himself as a reformer while running for president, but then appointed economic advisors like Larry Summers and Timothy Geithner who had authored policies that helped cause the crash to begin with. (Coincidence or no, both Summers and Geithner declined Ferguson's interview requests).
In this week's New York Review of Books, Paul Krugman and Robin Wells lament how books about the recession have failed to offer a viable solution. That may be because many people that caused the problem are still in power, and still helping themselves; consider that the Obama Administration hasn't launched a single criminal investigation related to the crash. Meanwhile, the severance package Merrill Lynch's former CEO received could pay the average yearly salaries of more than 5,000 Mississippi workers. If No End in Sight took on the tone of a tragedy, then Inside Job becomes dark, despairing comedy. And, as with much strong satire, watching it pisses you off.