“Nothing comes without consequence,” observes Andri Magnason. The filmmaker and author is reflecting on the fate of his native Iceland, where the banks collapsed at the end of 2008, whereupon the unemployment rate tripled. These dire consequences seem clear enough, and so provide a vivid opening sequence for Inside Job. Shots of spectacular mountains and fluffy clouds give way to frames full of stats and graphs, Alcoa smelting plants and gray urban streets.
But such obvious consequences are only the point of departure for Charles Ferguson’s new documentary. This start leads to remarkably coherent, bracing, and frequently galling analysis of the recent world financial crisis, one that focuses on the (current) lack of consequences for those who caused it.
Inside Job brings to this complicated, often confounding saga the same sort of intellectual and moral rigor that Ferguson’s No End in Sight brought to the Bush administration’s management of the Iraq War. Much like the previous film, this one makes talking heads — traditionally the dullest of documentary formats — compelling and revelatory. Each interview is delivered in direct relation to another, whether complementary or contradictory, the orchestration at once engaging and horrifying.
One by one, interview subjects respond to Ferguson’s off-screen queries, sometimes audible. The drama comes in watching subjects think through their answers, using their expertise to explain or obfuscate — sometimes both at once. At first, interviewees help to pull together the background to the crisis. In a section entitled, “How We Got Here,” speakers describe the dangers posed by Reagan-era deregulations (leading to the 1982 S&L scandals) and the creeping corporate expansions during the Clinton administration. These include, for instance, the legal manipulations that allowed the 1998 Citicorp-Travelers Group merger and so created Citigroup, and the political manipulations of Alan Greenspan, Robert Rubin, Larry Summers, and SEC Chairman Arthur Levitt, who notoriously “condemned” warnings from the then chair of the Commodity Futures Trading Commission (CFTC) Brooksley Born, concerning the development of off-market derivatives.
In tracing the intertwined histories of deregulation, credit default swaps, subprime mortgages, and ideological Kool-aid drinking (among other systemic abuses), Inside Job walks a thin and frankly enthralling line, encouraging subjects to tell their stories and sometimes watching them squirm in the process. If this process leaves many interviewees (like Eliot Spitzer, journalist Gillian Tett, and economist Raghuram Rajan) looking shrewd and thoughtful, others are plainly spinning themselves into deep holes. (The film also notes that some players mentioned by others, like Greenspan, Ben Bernanke, Hank Paulson, and Summers, “declined to be interviewed” here, creating an effect much like that in No End in Sight, when Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld, among others, also “declined”: their absence is incriminatory.)
The spinning into holes can be entertaining (if disconcerting), as when Financial Services Roundtable lobbyist Scott Talbott suggests he sees no problem with his clients buying off lawmakers (it is the way of the world, after all) or inveterate supply-sider Glenn Hubbard (Chief Economic Advisor during the Bush Administration and now Dean of the Columbia University Business School) becomes so frustrated at Ferguson’s questions that he cuts off the interview, inviting the filmmaker to “take your best shot” in the three minutes he has left. And Ferguson speaks for most of us when he asks why economist Frederic Mishkin left his position on Board of Governors at the Federal Reserve from 2006 to 2008 after it was revealed that he was paid $124,000 by the Icelandic Chamber of Commerce in 2006 to write a report praising the country’s financial sector. When Mishkin says he had to revise a textbook, Ferguson is plainly insulted at the lie: “I’m sure that your textbook is important and widely read, but…”
The film submits that as such lies and doublespeak have shaped a system premised on bad behavior, that behavior has been conducted by individuals — some going along and more or less ignorant (even believers in what they were doing), but others quite cognizant of their deceptions, as well as the consequences for others and the lack of consequences (and the increasing benefits) for themselves. As his interview subjects strain for answers and assume their privilege, Ferguson continues to question.
It may be that Inside Job‘s greatest effect is that, as the interviewees reveal themselves, they become — a little ironically — less central to the story. Increasingly, the film lays bare a culture based on greed and short-sightedness, one that produces a mindless focus on profits, whether ideological, political, or financial. Here individuals who suffer no consequences for their crimes (ethical and social, certainly, if not precisely legal) are symptomatic as much as they are culpable. As much as you might rail against the past malfeasances of Summers and Tim Geithner, you’re left to contemplate their participation in the Obama administration’s efforts to bring back the economy, but not fundamentally change the system.
Even as the insanity seems unstoppable, Inside Job argues for the value of accountability and the benefits of long-term thinking. As it allows the culprits to perform themselves, and so to look contemptible and small, it holds out hope that exposure — ongoing and detailed — might begin to make a difference.