Some Will Rob You with a Fountain Pen
Introducing Inside Job, Albert Maryles’ son Phil thanked filmmaker Charles Ferguson for making it available “at an affordable price.” The festival darling documentary-feature Academy Award-winner is part of Harlem Maysles Cinema’s first quarterly True Crime in New York series, so the speaker jokingly added that their low fee gets members into nearly all their offerings, “which is a crime in itself.”
Following pre-title minutes on the deregulation-fueled collapse of Iceland’s highly rated economy and financial institutions, the less than two hours divides into five sections considering the 2008 global meltdown, its causes, repercussions and “remedies.” Notwithstanding critical fluff out there about simplified explanations, Reykjavik’s humiliation is actually made more understandable than the rest, although sentences later on will link that smaller potato to the whole stew. This opening also sounds a recurrent, heartbreaking theme, that of the man or woman in the Florida or China street who loses job, home, security, savings, retirement and future to the market manipulations illustrated through interviews and graphics overvoiced by a compassionate Matt Damon.
The talking heads and C-SPAN hearings are so incessant that it is difficult to keep track or grab a secure handle. But the reach of the project is so large, and the scope of the old-boy network so complex with its tracks devious and covered by perps’ evasiveness, that the film cannot be fairly taxed with incomplete clarity. Buzzword transparency is not the name of the game played then and now.
Client 9: The Rise and Fall of Elliot Spitzer had inaugurated True Crime the previous evening, and there is double irony in that the now-TV face and disgraced former New York State attorney general and governor speaks often in this second offering: “double” in that, after audience guffaws at a juxtaposition of high-end business-expense call girls and his appearance, his is among the saner voices of knowledge, warning and meaningful suggestions. Personal foibles, he pleads, are not the equivalent of swindle and cynicism.
Two other surprises here are refreshing. Throughout, the interviewer goes beyond standard bland. From off-screen, his barbed questions are relentless in forcing heads to follow dotted lines and confront inconsistencies. They squirm under his modulated sarcasm and outright disbelief, grow confused and in cases rude in reminding crew and microphone to clear out. Given enough rope, they hang themselves, whereas numerous printed titles that So-and-So-Else “refused to be interviewed for this film” are unfair cheap overkill.
Second is that, while there is an agenda here, the thrust seems non-partisan. The roots of the crisis, and of smaller blips before it, are asserted to lie in deregulation, the removal of restrictions after decades of galloping growth, begun in the Reagan years and augmented under Clinton, Bush II and -- what a change from 2008-09 hopes -- Obama. The same faces, familiar or not, female as well as male, of both major parties, migrate from one position and administration to the next with their self-serving policies and gross miscalculations.
Further, and where at best immoral conflicts of interest enter and at worst criminal collusion, many of these public servants come out of the immensely profitable entities they are sworn to oversee and often return to them afterwards. The structure becomes insular, accountable only to itself.
Hand-in-glove bedfellows are elected and appointed officials, Wall Streeters, multinational CEOs, bankers, insurers, analysts, raters, with platinum-parachutes, and, a twist covered at length, top-drawer university business school deans and faculty whose salaries are multiplied manifold by consulting fees carroted with federal grants and posts.
The ins and outs of power, megafortunes, insider information, deals, risk-taking for profit by betting against repayment, remain frightening but still confusing afterwards. France’s finance minister Christine Lagarde is not the only one here to level a holier-than-thou finger but offers no viable way out, either. Business as usual.
Along with the smug venality of the upper one-to-ten percent in America who enjoy and control wealth -- an even smaller élite do so in many other countries -- most alarming about Inside Job is how little things change, how powerless the masses are.
(Released by Sony Pictures Classics and rated "PG-13" for some drug and sex-related material.)