From the disaster's beginning, media outlets from PBS to The Wall Street Journal have attempted to make sense of the 2008 financial crisis and the ensuing economic meltdown. For a particularly entertaining take, go to the web and check out the Nov. 5 edition of public radio's This American Life, in which a couple of glib reporters buy a toxic asset and name it "Toxie."
Now comes Inside Job, a lucid, angry documentary that is pretty good at tying the various strands together. If you haven't been following along - if you don't know a collateralized debt obligation from a credit default swap, and who does? - then this is a good place to start.
To tell this story, director Charles Ferguson interviews numerous experts, like liberal financier George Soros and disgraced New York Gov. Eliot Spitzer. In shaming titles, Ferguson identifies bigwigs who declined to be interviewed, from former Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan to current Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner.
Inside Job begins with a prologue about pretty, volcanic Iceland, where a 2008 credit crisis destroyed wealth and prompted unrest. Iceland's crisis was a harbinger of much worse to come.
Then the focus switches to recent American history. We're told of how U.S. politicians deregulated the financial system. Next, financiers devised complex investments based on risky mortgages. Real estate prices soared, ratings agencies overstated the safety of the risky investments, and Wall Street partied.
Then homeowners defaulted on their mortgages, real estate values plummeted, and Wall Street firms collapsed. The government bailed out some of them, but not all of them. Unemployment soared, and people were reduced to living in tents. Implicated in all this, Ferguson says, are corporate boards, whose members failed to rein in executive pay. Also implicated: supposedly unbiased academic economists who got rich working for Wall Street. Now our manufacturing base is destroyed, and the Obama-era financial reforms are toothless.
Ferguson tells this story about as well as it can be told in two hours, but he provides an almost overwhelming amount of detail. I think the problem is that film, as a medium, isn't particularly well suited to presenting material this dense. Indeed, the film is most effective when it slows down and focuses on the human toll of the crisis, as when a homeowner tearfully recounts being scammed by a predatory lender.
Also emotionally resonant are combative interviews with hostile subjects like Columbia business school dean Glenn Hubbard, who designed the Bush tax cuts. Ferguson seems to have learned an important lesson from 60 Minutes, which is that anyone will look guilty if you point a camera at them long enough. But although watching the likes of Hubbard squirm is satisfying if the crisis has put you in a torches-and-pitchforks mood, these segments yield more heat than light.