Inside Job

This is a brilliant, incisive film that exposes the greed-clogged heart of the financial crisis: the banking industry’s so-powerful-it-oughta-be-illegal influence on Capitol Hill. Directed by documentarian Charles Ferguson—whose début No End in Sight examined the widespread ineptitude and officially-sanctioned criminality during the Bush administration’s invasion of Iraq—Inside Job is, thankfully, not as boorish or bluntly-delivered as was Michael Moore’s Capitalism: a Love Story. Where the buffoonish Moore pleaded ignorance and goofily accosted Wall St. traders, asking them to explain how a derivative works in a thirty-second sound-bite as they were leaving work at the end of the day, Ferguson calmly explains, with the aid of simple animated info-graphics, such heretofore relatively mysterious buzz-words as “credit default swaps,” the “sub-prime” mortgage crisis and the invention and trading of complex financial instruments in clear, simple language.

Narrated by Matt Damon, the film is divided into five sections which roughly run through how, why and when the crisis started; what actually happened in 2008; what happened in the aftermath of the bailouts (the bankers actually collected bonuses after completely failing at their jobs and screwing the economy); and what the Obama administration are doing about it now (not much—for one, Larry Summers is still lurking around the corridors of power). The film is similar in a way to last year’s The Cove, at least inasmuch as it’s a jarring wake-up-call that also happens to be incredibly entertaining. (Moore’s film on the other hand, far from being a wake-up call, was relative snooze-fest punctuated every so often by melodramatic bank foreclosure sob-stories—an arena Ferguson wisely side-steps altogether.) The crisis is about people losing their homes, sure, but not only are the economic facts more interesting, they’re also less manipulative. Instead of people crying about losing their houses, Ferguson opts for far more entertaining stories: ones about cocaine and hookers.

One of Ferguson’s aims, aside from making the content accessible to the widest possible range of viewers, was to make a film that looks nicer than documentaries of this type tend to. Along with his high-definition* interview content, he incorporates standard-definition archival news footage and other lower-grade material; in less capable hands, this would be intrusive and would look out of place with the majority of the rest of the film. Here, though, Ferguson crops and zooms the footage to fit in the centre of his chosen 2.35:1 ar, and upscales some of it to hi-def, resulting in an extremely stylised, visually sleek documentary. What’s more, whenever a newspaper clipping, written or e-mailed correspondence, or one of the film’s hundreds of research documents is quoted, it appears onscreen in computerised form, in a plain serif typeface against a light background with the relevant portions highlighted in a bold yellow. The animated ‘camera’ then pans, glides and zooms its way through text and charts, as effortlessly as with the aforementioned info-graphics. This is all in stark contrast to most heavily fact- and information-based documentaries which, usually through a misplaced guise of ‘realism,’ present newspaper clippings and other printed material either in their original (sometimes illegible) form, or by reading them word-for-word in narration.

Ferguson’s film uses tv footage and previously-existing sequences (transferred from 35mm prints) from other documentaries alongside interview material (shot around the US and the world in various offices and hotels, as well as in Ferguson’s New York City apartment), but it also incorporates a lot of newly-shot helicopter/aerial footage at its start, and returns to it frequently. This was mostly taken in New York City, but crews also went to Iceland (where the film opens), and Malaysia and Singapore, where Ferguson travelled to interview political figures and business commentators. The footage is most prominent in the opening credits, of which the director (in his audio commentary) is justifiably proud. Commenting on the zippy editing of the title sequence, which Ferguson spent hours poring over to get the colour-correction matched on each shot, he says “This reflects on my no-longer-so-secret mission to make rock videos.” (The titles are perfectly accompanied by Peter Gabriel’s 1986 hit “Big Time,” the hard-fought licensing of which accounted for five per cent of the documentary’s total budget. mgmt’s “Congratulations,” which adds to the sombre, reflective tone at film’s close, was reportedly much easier to license.)

Ferguson’s film deservedly won the Academy Award for Best Documentary earlier this year—hardly surprising given its slick construction and intelligent handling of the issues. The most fascinating, revealing section for many viewers will likely be the final 20 or so minutes, in which Ferguson steps away from the Global Financial Crisis for a moment to examine one of its root causes: the financial conflicts of interest that have crept, unchecked, into the world of business academia. This section, in which Ferguson asks the hardest questions, and has a difficult time getting straight answers, perhaps signals that he has another film up his sleeve—one about how the discipline of economics has become corrupted by insatiable greed for money and power (not to mention the teachings of the Milton Friedmans of the world).

In a week where the country that is home to the Chicago School of Economics has had its credit rating downgraded for the first time ever, Ferguson’s film only proves more vital, more important than it was upon release a year ago.

* Sony is unfortunately releasing the film only on DVD; no Blu-ray version will be available locally.

Inside Job is now out on DVD through Sony Pictures Home Entertainment.

Special features include extra interview material and the film’s theatrical trailer, as well as a brief (12-minute) making-of featurette, “Behind the Heist,” that incorporates as much commentary on the film from the director as it does from author Charles R. Morris.

The audio commentary from Ferguson and his producer Audrey Marrs contains some funny tidbits—Werner Herzog wondered why the film didn’t show more of the ‘widespread popular mania’ during the bubble at its height, for example—but it’s also full of massive gaps (a definite no-no in audio commentaries if ever the was one), and Ferguson’s observations are occasionally really dumb, such as when he points out that the building on screen is the Federal Reserve, right after an interviewee had just said exactly that. Aside from these (and a plethora of increasingly redundant conversations about how some of the footage was taken), the commentary does offer just as much insight into the research and planning process, which makes it worth a cursory listen.