It’s the economists, stupid

Inside Job

Rep. Barney Frank, D-Mass., explains what happened on Wall Street. He’s probably the only talking head you’ll recognize.

Rep. Barney Frank, D-Mass., explains what happened on Wall Street. He’s probably the only talking head you’ll recognize.

Rated 3.0

For reviewers, Inside Job comes with a 36-page press kit. It contains a legend of the movie’s dozens of talking heads, a lengthy glossary of its jargon and a timeline, with the helpfully thesis-clarifying title of “How Deregulation and the Evolution of Wall Street Culture Led to the Financial Crisis.”

Of course, that’s a little clunky for the name of the documentary itself, so director Charles Ferguson opted instead for something pithier yet also evocative enough to imply bygone heist capers and terrorist conspiracies besides. Inside Job is indeed another dense indignant summary of the crisis, and not especially revelatory for anyone who’s seen or read the previous dense indignant summaries. It is also, even in spite of Ferguson’s ambition, cinematically deficient. You know you’ve tackled a tough subject when your movie seems incomplete without its own study guide.

To be fair, novella-length press notes are all the rage nowadays. It’s just that they usually consist of boring vanities, not actual (if still boring) essential information. (Freakonomics, to take a recent example from more or less the same camp, came with an 18-pager, comparatively much leaner except in that it contained naught but redundant puffery.) Worse, Inside Job’s notes still aren’t enough.

Take that financial timeline. It tells us that between the Great Depression and 1979, all was financially well, apparently. Then came Reaganomics, likened here to the lighting of a time-bomb fuse, and “the motivating ideology and the laissez-faire government attitude for all to come is set.” For context, it might be useful to point out that the roots of said ideology and attitude reach back at least a couple of centuries further, to the essentially simultaneous offerings of Adam Smith’s “The Wealth of Nations” and the Declaration of Independence.

Ferguson, who is also an acclaimed scholar and the maker of the acclaimed and scholarly documentary No End in Sight: The American Occupation of Iraq, can’t seem to surmount the inherent limits of wedging an academic style into a popular mass-media format. In any case, Inside Job decries a financial system that “turned its back on society” with outrageous impunity. With calm narration by integrity paragon Matt Damon, it accounts for a catastrophic deterioration of integrity.

When the film really gets humming with explanatory graphics and that narration, it’s as eloquent a lecturer on corrupted investment-grade ratings and insidious collateralized debt obligations as anyone could hope for. On that front, not even finance maven Michael Lewis’ recent book, The Big Short, can top it. But where Lewis at least allowed for a full expression of human nature—acknowledging the sinister genius by which this generation of fraudster financiers repurposed the system for their benefit, evilly ruining so many of the rest of us—Ferguson gets defensively superior, and resorts to random tattling. By the way, he sermonizes, lots of Wall Streeters are really into coke and hookers! Our reliable source on this is a vaguely sketchy psychotherapist whose authority on the matter seems to consist of his aversion to professional discretion.

Forgivably, perhaps, it gets confused. Early on, the recently wrecked economy of Iceland is proffered as “one of the purest experiments in financial deregulation ever conducted,” in order to suggest that, all else being equal, deregulation begets disaster. Much later the film finds itself grilling former Federal Reserve board member and current Columbia Business School professor Frederic Mishkin for being paid by the Icelandic Chamber of Commerce to write an allegedly disingenuous “Financial Stability in Iceland” report. Ferguson even stymies Mishkin by asking why the economist’s CV now gives the title of that report as “Financial Instability in Iceland.” Answer: Um, I dunno, a typo?

It seems like a fine jab, except that Ferguson has pulled a self-incriminating reversal of his own: So much for the purity of that experiment, eh?

Recognizing the basic problem of wanting better financial regulation from a government full of apparently callous, greedy bankers, Ferguson hopes to reseed the whole ecology of modern international finance. If he’s unsure of how to begin (at one point, blackmail is suggested), perhaps that problem can be turned over to moviegoers. Just give them some time with the supplemental materials.