In a society where money equals power, those with the most money have naturally gamed the system so it’s easier to make more and more money with no regard to long-term economic consequences. It’s called deregulation and it is the real antagonist behind Inside Job, Charles Ferguson’s thorough and infuriating exposé of the current worldwide financial crisis. An ideology and a system is on trial here, not a specific political party or an individual. While it’s true that Republicans most align themselves with the free market principles that cry out for unfettered business practices, the players who were criminal, negligent, misguided or just plain stupid before, during and after this crisis are painted with every political stripe and have all fed at the trough of Wall Street for decades. Though it’s tempting to want to put the screws to a single bad guy or even a group of them, the problem here is much more complex and nuanced than that. Inside Job doesn’t offer the lynch mob satisfaction of a good public hanging, but it does a fantastic job of laying out a complicated and often dry set of issues in a clear, coherent and compelling way. While it’s short on specific cures, it’s a major first step in diagnosing the cancer and one of the most important documentaries of the year.
The issues at the core of Inside Job don’t necessarily break along conservative/liberal lines or along those of rich and poor. They’re issues of basic human nature. Given the means, opportunity and encouragement to enrich oneself in the short-term while passing any potential risks down the line to faceless strangers far away and far into the future, who wouldn’t take advantage? Frighteningly, that’s the basis of how Wall Street works and, maddeningly, we’ve suffered the consequences roughly once a decade for the last 30 years in an escalating series of crises while very little has changed. From the savings and loan scandal of the late ’80s to the internet stock market bubble of the late ’90s to the current housing market crash and subsequent worldwide recession we’re still digging ourselves out from under today, the system has failed again and again and again.
It’s tempting to focus one’s anger on the people responsible for the mess we’re in and Inside Job serves up a convincing rogues’ gallery of villains from Alan Greenspan, to Larry Summers, to Ben Bernanke – all people with Wall Street ties and government power who helped build a system ripe for abuse (many of whom have profited handsomely from it and none of whom agreed to be interviewed for the film) – but Inside Job is at its weakest when it’s pointing a finger of blame or trying to corner an interviewee. It makes for compelling drama and it’s enormously satisfying to think that someone is going to be made to pay for our pain, but what good would it do even if you could prove criminal wrong doing?
No, the galling part about the story Inside Job tells is that we don’t appear to have learned a thing. Remember “too big to fail?” The banks are bigger now than they were prior to 2008 and history has shown them that they will not be held accountable for any of their failures. They can’t be. Meanwhile, the voices for deregulation are louder than ever despite all we’ve been through. The economy is too fragile we’re told to unnecessarily encumber the supposed engines of economic growth. This flies in the face of more than 30 years of economic evidence, but here we go again. Unless we learn from our mistakes, we’re doomed to repeat them. It’s happened 3 times in 3 decades and in a government bought off by the very entities that are selling us down the river for their own economic advantage, nothing is going to change.
Inside Job. USA 2010. Written and directed by Charles Ferguson. Cinematography by Svetlana Cvetko and Kalyanee Mam. Music score composed by Alex Heffes. Edited by Chad Beck and Adam Bolt. Narrated by Matt Damon. 1 hour 48 minutes. MPAA rated PG-13 for some drug and sex-related material. 4.5 stars (out of 5)