A “how it happened” documentary to rank alongside his “No End in Sight,” Charles Ferguson’s sophomore film “Inside Job” is the definitive screen investigation of the global economic crisis, providing hard evidence of flagrant amorality — and of a new nonfiction master at work. Boasting more villains than a dozen blockbusters, it points an incriminating finger at not only financial services execs who got filthy rich on working people’s pain (and who remain in power) but also government officials and biz-school toppers irrefutably revealed to be in Wall Streeters’ pockets. Ironically, Sony Pictures Classics’ anti-capitalist commodity could well become a moneymaker.
As in his searing Iraq War study of 2007, “No End in Sight,” Ferguson aims to arm auds with information and infuriate them into action, beginning with the assertion, calmly voiced by narrator Matt Damon, that the ongoing crisis was “not an accident.” As a result, those among the top 1% of global wealth holders aren’t likely to be among the movie’s major supporters.
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Supplemented by well-placed archival footage and photos (plus graphs and charts), a highly distinguished crew of talking heads testifies to investment bankers’ premeditated assault on the middle and lower classes through a system of predatory lending. The vast dichotomy between images of Hamptons mansions and Floridian tent cities vividly illustrates Ferguson’s point that the rich have played while the poor have paid. (Docu also devotes screen time to economic victims in China, Singapore and, at the topical start of the pic, Iceland.)
Pic’s historical overview of the past 30 years in Wall Street finance may contain little that’s new, but its concise rendering here is suitably bone chilling. In Ferguson’s account, the Reagan-era deregulation of banks precedes Bill Clinton’s Financial Services Modernization Act (or “Citigroup Relief Act”) of 1999; George W. Bush’s drastic diminishing of the Securities and Exchange Commission; and, the filmmaker argues, President Obama’s neglect of campaign promises to enact financial reform and pursue the criminal prosecution of investment bankers who knowingly bet against the unreliable securities they sold to homebuyers.
Heard off-camera, Ferguson fearlessly grills a host of government and private sector bigwigs on what they knew and when they knew it. Repeatedly, the stuttering evasions of those interviewed — amid several requests for the director to stop filming — speak as loudly as words.
Naturally, the film includes the names of many, some of them bank-paid lobbyists opposed to economic reform, who declined to grant interviews. Still, several economics department academics appear on camera struggling to maintain that their dual positions at universities and on the boards of investment banking firms do not represent conflicts of interest. Columbia Business School prof Frederic Mishkin, formerly on the Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve System, unconvincingly asserts that he left his post in August of 2008 (just weeks before the Wall Street crash) in order to work on revising an old textbook.
The docu’s other darkly humorous comments, if not the most incriminating, come from “Wall Street madam” Kristin Davis, who acknowledges the wealth of major investment bankers in her brothel-going clientele, and therapist Jonathan Alpert, who notes his executive clients’ “blatant disregard for the consequences of their actions.”
A little comic relief goes a long way toward mediating Ferguson’s otherwise relentless approach. Still, such is the grim tone of the film — as apocalyptic in its way as “No End in Sight” — that blocks of New York City skyscrapers, seen from above in frequent helicopter shots, begin to look like rows of dominoes. The pic’s musical selections, from Peter Gabriel’s “Big Time” to MGMT’s “Congratulations,” somehow manage to keep one’s toes tapping, even as one’s fist remains firmly clenched.