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)

7 Responses to “Inside Job (2010)”

  1. Looks like I’m getting back into the fold just in time. I saw this brill film two months ago and only tonight finally posted my own thoughts on it.

    Had Ferguson taken a Michael Moore approach and sought humiliation or retribution or something against the Wall Street pigs, this film wouldn’t have been nearly as clear and understandable for the average person. For the first time I actually understood this disaster, and that’s saying something after two years and a half-dozen films on the subject.

    We agree that human nature requires regulation and that “people never change” (what I thought the real tagline to Wall Street 2 should have been); you can bet your last unemployment check (figuratively speaking) that as soon as everyone gets back on their feet we’ll be right back to the spend and charge lifestyle. The greed-friendly system we have in place allows greedy lenders to give money to greedy borrowers, and the resulting (and predictable) defaults affect everyone. I don’t see how regulation is not the sole answer. Fact is I’d sleep easier if there was a set of rules in place, not simply some bankers’ pledges to lend and invest “responsibly”.

  2. “I don’t see how regulation is not the sole answer.” agreed. If you let people do whatever they want, they’ll do whatever they want regardless of the consequences for everyone else.

    There has to be regulation. It should be balanced so as not to be too stifling, but you can’t have the banks be making up the rules. Even more than that, the banks have to be broken up so that if they DO take stupid risks and fail, we can let them suffer the consequences instead of propping them up so they don’t bring the whole house of cards down.

    It’s funny that you mentioned Wall Street 2 because I was reminded as I was watching Inside Job just how ripe of a backstory WS2 had and how badly they blew it. I’m not a fan of the original, but it did a good job of capturing a moment in time and in a sense predicting a lot of the problems we’ve had subsequently, but the sequel was just a bad soap opera tarted up with some current headlines.

  3. I don’t see how regulation is not the sole answer.

    Tell that to your average conservative, or average Wall St employee, or your average Tea Bagger. They claim regulation is bad, bad, bad. I still haven’t ever gotten an explanation why that doesn’t come down to “well, regulation stiffles business and free markets can regulate themselves.”

    Then I typically ask for a concrete example of this in the last 100 years where an industry regulated itself over the long term, protected consumers, the public, and its work force.

    No one has ever given me a satisfying, concrete example.

  4. Good point, Joel. I listen to way too much conversative talk radio for my own good (or anyone else’s), and yes, all they ever bark about are “markets regulating themselves”, but yet they act like the recession was caused by corporate taxes, etc.

    And I should take back my naive statement about rules being in place – even when they are, someone will break them.

    I agree about WS2, Craig, but that’s pretty much par for the course lately with Stone. He might have done something memorable with World Trade Center but dropped the ball on that one too, at least in my opinion.

    I have a few documentaries to catch up on yet this year, but I’d be pleased if Ferguson walked away with an award on Oscar night, if not also to make up for the one he should have received for No End in Sight.

  5. This is the one essential film that has eluded me so far, and I can’t say I’m happy about it, especially in view of the fact that Craig has just about confirmed to everyone here at LIC that this documentary will definitely be finishing hight up on his Ten Best list for 2010. Perhaps, even as high as #2. Yes, I’d indeed venture to agree that in the end we’ve learned nothing. One of your best-written and most probing reviews of the entire year, I must say. The film is playing nearby; I hope I can squeeze it in this week between showings of the Takemitsu Festival.

  6. The thing about Inside Job is that I don’t think it necessarily gives you anything you didn’t already know, there are few sexy fireworks (and no dolphins are stabbed in the head) but it does a great job of connecting the dots, clarifying many of the issues and painting a big broad picture of how screwed we really are.

  7. Likewise I would like to see an example of when increased regulation has made us as a nation more economically sound. BTW, FDR is a bad example. Stats show that the economy was turning around well before FDR started the “New Deal”. He prolonged the great depression but too few of us realize it. The economic cycle was on the upturn and despite his best efforts we came out of that depression anyway. Then we look at him as a hero instead of a tyrant that took our freedoms. Yes there is risk with the greed of large corporations, but I would rather take that risk than give up my freedoms. To many of my constitutional rights have been taken by Libs trying to play it safe and regulating every thing. I say the founding fathers had it right. I do not expect that every business decision to be in my best interest, but too much regulation ensures that I cannot succed, nor can any one. Hence our current situation. Also Reagan’s period of deregulation lead to some of the most economically successful years.

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