The Great Recession. Spiraling unemployment. The bank and auto bailouts. Thirteen-figure national debt. Sequestration. The possible insolvency of Social Security. Government shutdown. Near-default on U.S. global credit.
The past five years has supplied a seemingly endless procession of potential financial catastrophes, along with an attending black cloud of vituperations as politicians, pundits, economists, activists, think-tankers and the guy next to you at the bar all weigh in on who is to blame and how to fix it.
One thread of the national discussion focuses on the increasingly disparate distribution of wealth in the United States. That issue got plenty of play in the 2012 presidential elections, as Mitt Romney's campaign took a major body blow when it was revealed that he paid a mere 14- percent effective tax rate (far lower than rates on most members of the beleaguered middle class) on an income of nearly $14 million over the previous year.
While that WTF!?! moment of clarity helped ensure a second Obama term, the issue of wealth inequality has largely been bumped out of the spotlight in recent months by the specters of political dysfunction and the nascent implementation of the Affordable Care Act. But Inequality For All, the new documentary built around Robert Reich, aims to push wealth distribution back into the forefront of the debate.
Reich owns an impressive pedigree: He's the son of a clothing store owner in Scranton, Pa., who graduated summa cum laude from Dartmouth, interned under RFK, won a Rhodes Scholarship to Oxford (where he first met and befriended Bill Clinton), graduated from Yale Law School, served in the Ford and Carter administrations, and became Clinton's Secretary of Labor from 1993 to 1997. He's the author of 14 books, a number of which have become best sellersincluding Aftershock: The Next Economy and America's Future, the work that inspired director Jacob Kornbluth to make the movie.
In terms of merit as a documentary subject, Reich has two things going for him. The first is that he's a brilliant public speaker, possessed of a rare combination of passion, timing and articulation. The second is that he's shorta genetic disorder prevented him from reaching the five-foot markand has developed an extremely endearing, self-deprecating sense of humor as a result (clips from the movie show him in a detective skit next to the 6' 4" Conan O'Brien, jumping to shoot over a car, and on the "Tonight Show," jumping off his chair and asking the audience, "Do I look like big government?")
Given Reich's speaking talents, Kornbluth wisely uses Reich's own voice as the principle narrative tool. The lion's share of Inequality For All is driven by interviews with Reich (in a break from documentary tradition, he addresses the camera directly, to great effect) as well as clips from a lecture to his class at UC Berkeley and other public appearances. Additionally, Kornbluth shot profiles of several disenfranchised middle-class has-beens and wannabes, and includes them just enough to add a nice touch of humanization without overreaching into sentimentalizing. The director weaves these different narrative threads in seamless fashion, resulting in a gratifyingly coherent argument throughout the film.
Kornbluth also frames the many components of Reich's argumentthat the single biggest financial crisis facing the United States is a gap in wealth distribution unmatched since 1929in brilliant fashion. Aided by Reich's knack for simple but precise metaphor, Kornbluth unleashes an array of graphics that consistentlyand startlinglydrive home how the laws and prevailing culture in this country have given the United States the largest distance between haves and have-nots, by far, of any developed nation.
All of this makes Inequality For All a critically important film, for people of all political and social classes. The fact that Reich and Kornbluth have somehow put an entertaining spin on such a tragic story is simply icing on the cake.
Inequality For All continues at the Wilma Theatre.