The most telling interview moment of Inside Job—and there are many important ones—actually comes from some B-roll footage of former Federal Reserve Chairman Paul Volcker as he prepares for the formal questioning to begin. As the 83-year-old economist, who now leads President Obama's Economic Recovery Advisory Board, gets himself settled in the chair, he sips liberally from what looks to be half a glass of bourbon.
Just about every other interview subject in the documentary looks as though they too could use a stiff drink, and who can blame them? Though no one person is responsible for causing the catastrophic worldwide financial crisis of 2008, many of those who appear on camera in Inside Job were complicit in either creating the conditions that caused it, ignoring the many warning signs years in advance and/or failing to properly penalize the responsible parties.
That any of these financial players—ranging from Clinton and Bush administration officials to former executives to academics—even agreed to appear on camera for a crisis postmortem is a testament to the brilliance of director Charles Ferguson, who has finely crafted the best documentary of 2010. In a roundabout way, it's also a film that makes me never want to watch another Michael Moore documentary. Moore's more recent filmmaking methods, particularly in Capitalism: A Love Story, are fully exposed here in contrast to the methodical, non-partisan explanations and analysis offered by Inside Job. Whereas Moore aims for the easy kill shot, like standing outside an investment bank and asking exiting workers what a derivative is, Ferguson actually explains what derivatives and collateralized debt obligations (CDO) are, and what they mean in the context of the crisis. Whereas Moore never shies away from the human sob story, milking every tear until the subject has been fully exploited, Inside Job wisely steers mostly clear of the personal narratives. It touches on the human element, but never lingers. I counted exactly one tear in the film, from a woman who had been taken advantage of by a predatory lender and lost her house.
The lack of human-interest vignettes doesn't mean the film lacks an emotional punch. You'll be plenty angry by the time it's over. I'm just not sure with whom to be most pissed off. The film makes it clear any one political party or investment bank cannot shoulder the blame for the financial meltdown. This was a team effort in the worst sense, aided by deregulation policies during the late Clinton years, the hubris of Alan Greenspan, Ben Bernanke and other Fed officials, the blind eye of the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) and other regulatory agencies and, above all, the greed of men.
Mixing informative on-screen graphics and text with the steady narration of Matt Damon, Inside Job manages to merge all the elements of an extremely complicated crisis in a way that somehow does not overwhelm the audience in confusion. To clearly articulate such a dense and muddled subject is almost an impossible task. Yet in five chapters over the course of 110 minutes, Ferguson manages to fuse together a narrative that includes the audience-friendly juicy bits with explanations of the legislative and financial frameworks that eventually caused such havoc on the entire planet. Yes, there's the interview with the high-end escort service owner who claims that at the height of the economic bubble in 2005 she had over 10,000 Wall Street clients, almost all of whom billed their companies for the service using phony invoices. But we also get equally telling interviews with a former Federal Reserve governor who quit months before the meltdown, as well as George W. Bush's chief economic advisor, Glen Hubbard, who irritably admits on camera that he should not have agreed to this interview.
Hubbard is now the dean of Columbia Business School, which gets to one of the film's final and most interesting conclusions: Through conflicts of interest among academics and the seemingly revolving door between politics, consulting, academia and Wall Street, the country's higher education system has corrupted the study of economics itself.
Inside Job is an education. Until now only National Public Radio (NPR) has dared to try and explain the crisis from beginning to end using more than the standard four-minute news clip. And since we all now know a bunch of left-wing politically correct Communists are running NPR, we are luckily left with an even more in-depth examination here. Most telling of all may be the officials who declined to appear on camera, including members of the Obama administration and the former banking executives who received tens of millions of dollars in salary and bonuses for bankrupting their companies. Like Volcker, they're probably off drinking somewhere. With how clear a conscience they are doing so remains a mystery.
Inside Job continues at the Wilma Theatre.