A Lot of People Acting Badly -- Rather Like This Documentary

by Ian Chant

3 June 2010

Danny Schechter doesn’t seem to recognize that he’s pretty late to the whistle blower party here -- but that’s not the main problem.
cover art

Plunder: The Crime of Our Time

Director: Danny Schechter

US DVD: 6 Apr 2010

Plunder: The Crime of Our Time, the latest film from self-appointed ‘news dissector’ Danny Schechter, has designs on being a searing investigative indictment of the financial collapse. Ultimately, it falls short of that lofty goal, burdened by a lack of original thought and a low budget execution that ranges from merely flat to downright gruesome.

Schechter has a compelling story to tell, but runs into two problems telling it. The first is that the story he’s chosen is well trod territory by now, familiar to anyone who has been paying a modicum of attention to the nightly news anytime in the past 18 months, a fact that makes Schechter’s often self-congratulatory tone all the more grating. Meanwhile, the profusion of stock footage and B-minus grade animations leave one feeling like you haven’t actually watched a movie so much as an overly long power point presentation, and the sense of satisfaction is a similar one.

One of the main problems with Plunder is the thoroughly ‘us and them’ quality it applies to the dichotomy between Wall Street bankers and everyone else. Schechter is looking for a Bond villain of some sort here, for a person or group who we can blame for the whole shebang and there’s just not really one. There are a lot of people acting badly, and doing things that are morally reprehensible. There is a culture of individuals who were incentivized for decades, for the span of entire careers, to take big risks and game a poorly regulated system.

However, that’s not the story Schechter is interested in telling. As is being demonstrated by the current, painstaking legal process, and pointed out by a number of Schechter’s interviewees, there’s fairly little evidence that much of done was actually illegal. No one, least of all your reviewer, is arguing that the events and culture that led up to the current recession were not at best the morally questionable acts of shortsighted financial sector cowboys concerned with turning a profit and little else.  The fact of the matter is that these are largely very intelligent people who have devoted their lives to understanding loopholes in financial regulation, and whether or not many of the big players did anything genuinely illegal remains foggy – it’s a question we can look forward to the courts settling for years to come.

Unfortunately,Plunder not only brings fairly little new information to the table, it also fails to acknowledge the good work done by others on the matter so far. Schechter doesn’t seem to recognize that he’s pretty late to the whistle blower party here, but that’s not the main problem. The main problem is that it’s an extremely poorly made film, to the point that significant portions of it are simply hard to watch.

The interviews that form the spine of the narrative are rambling and disjointed, leaving the film as a whole overlong and making it hard to tell what point Schechter is trying to make, other than “Wall Street is Bad”. At one point, Schechter interviews a visual artist who paints images of financial industry icons and then lets audiences write their own messages on the resulting work. The interview seems out of place in the film, as other than making paintings of figures involved in the financial collapse, the interviewee doesn’t have any real insight on the situation or the people he’s painting.

When Schechter starts lobbing loaded questions like “What do you think you do that the media doesn’t?” it becomes clear that he’s simply looking for someone who will give him another quote about the ineffectiveness of the mainstream media. Naturally, he’s not disappointed here.

The flow of Plunder is also betrayed by the persistence of confusing, amateurish musical numbers that barge in on the film at unexpected but all too frequent intervals. Inserted in seemingly pell mell fashion, these YouTube style videos are invariably of earnest singer-songwriter types railing against the unfairness of the system and the black hatted bankers who brought the system crashing to it’s knees. Frequently, there are even urls above the half screen videos of these low rent troubadours, so you can check out the rest of their material after you finish the movie.

You won’t need to worry about visiting those websites. In fact, you may not even have to worry about finishing the movie.

It’s not the case that there’s nothing new under the sun in the world of financial malfeasance. Alas, Schechter isn’t covering anything here that hasn’t been already addressed, and frankly covered better. If you’re still curious about how the world ended up in this financial quagmire, and you should be, there are plenty of places to find out about it. Simon Johnson and James Kwak’s Baseline Scenario blog, for example, is a thorough and compelling rundown of how we got here and what we can do to get out of it, while NPR’s Planet Money podcast has spent the last couple of years doing yeoman’s work on the subject, explaining the financial crisis in terms you don’t need a Ph.d. to understand.

Though it’s ranting nature is sure to appeal to some who are just angry at financial industry fat cats, the work ultimately amounts to little more than a screed, and viewers looking for something that will genuinely improve their understanding of the financial meltdown can safely move along. There’s nothing to see, here.

Plunder: The Crime of Our Time


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