Getting Away with It
By now, I've watched a good share of issues-oriented documentaries. The best ones are those that leave you justifiably angry at whatever injustice it's discussing, whether the subject be Enron, electric cars, dolphin killings, or the Iraq War. I expected Inside Job, Charles Ferguson's examination of the 2008 financial crisis and the events leading up to it, to leave me in a similar, perhaps even more intense, fit of anger and indignation. What I didn't expect was my actual reaction -- one of dismay at our utter, complete helplessness.
Ferguson's documentary is a straight-faced sobering account of how the U.S. steadily and surely brought itself to the recent financial collapse that has had global implications. Not really intended for those who are already steeped in knowledge about it, the film works extremely effectively as a summary course of events, allowing those who can't tell a CDO from a CDS to understand, piece by piece, how the house of cards was built. Narrated with great poise by Matt Damon, it's thorough, filled with interviews (and when an interview request was turned down, it gladly tells us), and points to numerous targets, from the bankers to politicians (both Republican and Democrat) to higher level educational institutions.
The level of greed and unethical behavior exposed is staggering, of course. But what's worse is the realization that, in this world, money, power, and influence build upon each other in an upward spiral to the point where most of these people who were involved in these financial shenanigans are now practically untouchable. More pointedly, they're the ones in control -- of the economy, of our government, and of the system that keeps their few numbers ultra-rich at the expense of everyone else. Hope for any kind of justice feels fruitless because, in the span of a few short decades, these figures have rigged a system to chip away at regulations while entirely dodging the remaining ones, and to pull the strings of the authorities who might have the moral interest in persecuting them. When the heat gets turned up, they have convenient back doors through which to escape. The word "accountability" must be a joke to them.
Inside Job also touches upon the possible reasons why these Wall Street moguls act the way they do. The simple reality that it must all be simply a big ego contest to them is both disgusting and utterly believable. When competitive men find a way to succeed more and more at what they're doing, while getting away with dishonest and compassionless behavior, why would they stop? Why wouldn't they do everything to protect their personal domain? Why would they even find it questionable to sell a loan to someone as safe, then turn around and make money by betting on its failure? Once again, here are examples of what happens when normal human survival behaviors get stretched and honed to a point far away from ground level -- the relative concerns of morality dwindle miserably in the face of self-justifications. (Just listen to some of the guilty interviewees stuttering when Ferguson asks an ethical question -- it's both comical and terribly depressing.)
Normally, in a story such as the one we're being told here, a downfall is forthcoming. The characters we follow make a fortune but then have no more soul to claim -- they sit in their big houses with a feeling of emptiness, perhaps pining for their childhood sled. Inside Job's biggest impact to me was to show me just how romanticized that ending is. These bankers, these heads of financial institutions and government financial bodies have found ways to bilk every working class man and woman out there, then look the other way as they golden parachute into their mansions in the Hamptons. And we want them to go to jail and realize the horror of what they've done? Is that too much to hope for? The answer may be too hard to face.
(Released by Sony Pictures Classics and rated "PG-13" for some drug and sex-related material.)
Review also posted at ww.windowtothemovies.com.