Sony // 2010 // 108 Minutes // Rated PG-13
Reviewed by Judge Erich Asperschlager // March 20th, 2011
"The financial industry turned its back on society, corrupted our political system, and plunged the world economy into crisis. At enormous cost, we've avoided disaster and are recovering; but the men and institutions that caused the crisis are still in power, and that needs to change. They will tell us that we need them and that what they do is too complicated for us to understand. They will tell us it won't happen again. They will spend billions fighting reform. It won't be easy. But some things are worth fighting for."
Reality television gave rise to a phenomenon where people could become famous for being famous. No talent, no accomplishments, nothing to show for their celebrity other than name recognition and a hunger to stay in the public eye. This bizarre, tenuous fame requires a series of bigger, bolder stunts to sustain, and usually ends with a public meltdown.
Something similar happened on Wall Street. In the years following the Great Depression, checks and balances were established to keep banks honest. Starting in the 1980s, those regulations were stripped away -- giving the brightest and greediest minds in finance the freedom to exploit the system for huge profits while finding new ways to defer risk.
This Wild West approach to investing led to a series of financial crises, from the Savings and Loan scandals of the 1980s to the bursting of the internet bubble in 2000. The worst came in 2008, when a housing boom fueled by irresponsible lending and fraud ended with the collapse of the biggest banks and investment firms, plunging the world economy into a deep recession. The collapse was met with public outcry and politicians promising to enact reforms that would keep it from ever happening again.
Documentary filmmaker Charles Ferguson made a name for himself with 2007's No End in Sight, about the U.S. occupation of Iraq. His newest film, the Academy Award-winning Inside Job, focuses the same critical eye on the origins and aftermath of the 2008 financial meltdown. Through exhaustive documentation and a parade of expert testimony, Ferguson makes the compelling case that this crisis is far from over. The people responsible are still at large, still profiting from their actions, and in power to do it again.
The story of the recent economic crisis is full of CDOs, subprime mortgages, credit default swaps, AAA ratings, and arguments about the deregulation of derivatives. It's no wonder the average American is confused by it all. If you're among the overwhelmed, don't worry, you're not alone. It turns out that many of the financial folks who bought and sold these risky products didn't understand it either. For decades, these investment bankers, insurance companies, and economists lived in an ideological echo chamber where massive bonuses and windfall profits reinforced the idea that deregulation was the greatest thing to happen to the American economy. By the time people started to understand the dangers, there was too much money in play to back off. When the house of cards started to wobble, most looked the other way. When it finally fell, bringing the world's economy down with it, those at the top barely felt a thing. Thanks to a federal bailout and a government unwilling to make any harsh changes, multimillion dollar bonuses were not only paid out as usual, the amount given to top executives actually grew.
If you followed the news in the months after the crash of 2008, Inside Job won't be entirely new. But it is one of the most concise explanations of what happened I've heard this side of NPR's Planet Money podcast. Narrated with soothing authority by Matt Damon and bolstered with easy to understand graphs, Ferguson breaks down more than thirty years of complex financial wrangling and a huge cast of characters in a way that's neither dumbed down nor overly academic. It's dense, but even if you don't take it all in the first time, you'll leave the film knowing enough to make your inevitable outrage feel justified.
Documentarians tend to come in two flavors: the detached and the purpose-driven. Ferguson never puts himself on camera, like Michael Moore or Morgan Spurlock, but his point of view is front and center throughout. What keeps this from feeling like the pet project of an opinionated activist is Ferguson's attention to detail. Building in part off the work of his friend, Wall Street Journal contributor Charles Morris -- whose book The Two Trillion Dollar Meltdown warned about the crash, and who appears throughout the film -- Ferguson digs deep into the data. He uses archival footage from Congressional hearings, court documents, and expert testimony from big hitters like George Soros, former Federal Reserve Chairman Paul Volcker, IMF Managing Director Dominique Strauss-Kahn, Financial Service Committee Chairman Barney Frank, and former NY Attorney General and Governor Eliot Spitzer. Unfortunately, the people we really want to hear from, those implicated by the film, are nowhere to be seen -- which Ferguson points out at every opportunity.
The few culpable individuals who do appear in the film are the most fascinating interviews. David McCormick, who was Under Secretary of the Treasury during the Bush Administration, quickly realizes what he's up against and shuts down, while lobbyist Scott Talbott borders on delusional when asked whether these executives deserved their exorbitant bonuses. The best interviewee is Glenn Hubbard, Dean of the Columbia Business School and Chief Economic Advisor during the Bush Administration. Hubbard goes from helpful to hostile in an instant when Ferguson raises questions about academic conflicts of interest among economic professors who moonlight as consultants. When Hubbard lashes back with "Give it your best shot!" he speaks for every ethically challenged CEO who doesn't understand the problem with betting against the investments they recommend to clients, or giving high ratings to repackaged high-risk investments because the fees are higher.
While Ferguson does an outstanding job making complicated economic history easy to understand, Inside Job is a must-see film because of the picture it paints of the post-crash world we are living in. Despite the calls for change and promises of reform, very little has been done to protect the American economy. None of the high-level decision makers responsible for the crisis have faced any legal consequences, and their commitment to "mindless ideology over common sense" (as Morris puts it) means that as long as they remain unchallenged, in charge, and politically influential, there's a good chance it will happen again.
As with any message movie, those who disagree with Ferguson's pro-regulation position will call Inside Job one-sided. Although there is some disagreement among the interviewees about the cause of the crisis, the differences are subtle. No one featured here makes a convincing case in favor of the financial sector. Also missing is a real discussion of the responsibility of the homebuyers who borrowed more than they could afford. You could easily argue that America's credit culture and general lack of financial savvy made the bubble bigger, and the crash even worse. But what about the retirees who thought their funds were in low-risk investments, only to lose everything when those highly rated assets turned out to be junk? It may not be completely fair to blame the bankers and insurance companies for everything that went wrong, but with our economic future on the line, Ferguson goes after the people with the power and money to make or deny change. Even in the interest of balance, it's much harder to blame people who lost everything than the millionaires who profited from their mistakes.
On Blu-ray, Inside Job sports a mostly crisp 1080p AVC-encoded transfer. The archival footage is of varying quality, and there's noticeable edge enhancement, but the upgrade is noticeable, from interviews to bar charts. The 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio track is well-balanced and clean, getting the information across in an effective way.
If you want to dig deeper, Inside Job comes with an informative selection of bonus features. Ferguson teams up with producer Audrey Marrs for an audio commentary that's more about the making of the film than the financial crisis. Considering all the data that's packed into the movie itself, too much more would have been overload. Instead, you get recollections about location shooting, difficulties with certain interviewees, and the admission that they spent 5 percent of the film's budget getting the rights to play Peter Gabriel's "Big Time" over the opening credits. The 12-minute Starz studios featurette "Inside Job: Behind the Heist" is part making-of, part summary of the arguments in the film.
The bulk of the extras is a collection of deleted interviews with Morris, Strauss-Kahn, Spitzer, Financial Times Managing Editor Gillian Tett, lawyer Harvey Miller, credit risk consultant Jerome Fons, Prime Minister of Singapore Lee Hsien Loong, author and consultant Satyajit Das, financial crisis expert Simon Johnson, and financial blogger Yves Smith. There's more than an hour and a half of interviews in all, with about an hour's worth exclusive to Blu-ray. Although they're not the kind of extras you can casually flip through, if you want to know even more about what happened, there's plenty of meat to chew on. Just make sure you have the remote at the ready because the volume levels are all over the place.
Inside Job isn't just an eye-opening documentary, it's also one of the scariest movies of 2010. Brimming with righteous anger and backed up with hard data, this is the opening volley in a battle to reclaim the truth from those who would rewrite history. Whether you agree with Ferguson's conclusions or not, his latest documentary needs to be seen by as many people as possible.
Inside Job is one of the few things in this story that's not guilty!
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Scales of Justice
* 2.35:1 Non-Anamorphic (1080p)
* DTS HD 5.1 Master Audio (English)
* English (SDH)
Running Time: 108 Minutes
Release Year: 2010
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13
* Deleted Interviews
* Official Site