Reviewed at the 2010 Toronto Film Festival.
Roughly halfway through “Inside Job,” Andrew Lo, a professor of finance at MIT, describes an academic study of brain activity that showed that the same part of the brain stimulated by money is the same as cocaine. That this observation is made in the midst of a montage of Wall Street’s infatuation with hookers, blow and the black corporate credit cards used to charge the latter two doesn’t just imply that the pursuit of cash is a drug, but that as a filmmaker, Charles Ferguson has taken the gloves off.
Since his Oscar-winning 2007 doc “No End in Sight,” Ferguson has gone from attacking a war to declaring one on Wall Street with a film that just as easily could’ve been called “No End in Sight II: Financial Edition.” Broken down into four chapters and countless graphs, “Inside Job” is another brilliant, scrupulous breakdown of how giant egos and greed led to a disaster that would imperil the American public.
Yet where “No End in Sight” was solemn, his latest has considerably more sex appeal, casting Matt Damon as its narrator and breaking out Bachman-Turner Overdrive’s “Taking Care of Business” to underscore the freewheelin’ ways of financial institutions willing to funnel drug money out of Mexico (Citibank) or help conceal fraud of companies like Enron (Citibank, JP Morgan and Merrill Lynch) to boost their bottom line during the ’80s.
By the time Ferguson is done, those seem like minor infractions compared to the systemic rot that led to the global meltdown of 2008, where decades of deregulation paved a prickly path of derivatives, credit swap defaults and subprime mortgages that the director helpfully decodes into plain speak. Ferguson also makes clear the villains, tarring former Treasury Secretaries Lawrence Summers, Robert Rubin and Henry Paulson in equal measure — only Paul Volcker, who shows up with a glass of a suspiciously amber-colored drink in hand as if to say I told you so, accepted an invitation to be interviewed — and hanging out once-lauded Alan Greenspan as a buffoon for encouraging Wall Street to act recklessly as the financial sector took in billions from a general public unable to afford it.
Ferguson himself has seen money that most Americans never will, having sold the company he founded (Vermeer Technologies) to Microsoft for $133 million, which when paired with his work for the Brookings Institute and as a visiting scholar at M.I.T. likely opened the door to the impressive array of experts he’s assembled for “Inside Job.” But he has clearly not lost touch with the concerns of average Americans, refusing to engage in bullshit of any kind.
On one hand, this involves skewering former U.S. Treasury Under Secretary for International Affairs David McCormick when he says with a straight face that Paulson caught all of the warning signs of a recession and taking academics Frederic Mishkin and Glenn Hubbard to task for their high-paying extra-curricular gigs in a particularly rewarding segment on the infiltration of industry into the study of economics. What it also means is that Ferguson is unwilling to cheapen the film with amusing stock footage or other like-minded distractions to make the diagnosis any more palatable.
Instead, Ferguson relies on the idea of respecting the intelligence of the audience, something that is obviously in stark contrast to activity of the financial institutions that he’s depicting. While “Inside Job” is never what you’d call warm, whether it’s the crisp, sterile cinematography of Svetlana Cvetko and Kalyanee Mam or Ferguson’s calm interrogation of his interviewees from off-camera, it’s a film that meets the demand of imparting a critical lecture without ever sounding like one. Ferguson isn’t the first to make the case that financial institutions, the government and academia have formed an unholy trinity out to screw the American public, yet he may be the rare one to make it stick, not with mouth-foaming rage, but reasoned analysis that takes a turn towards indignation.
“Inside Job” opens in New York on October 8th and Los Angeles on October 15th before opening in limited release.