The summer in between my freshman and sophomore years at the University of Oregon, I worked new student orientation and helped incoming students get acclimated to campus before starting classes in the fall. One group I ferried around during mid-July was entirely business majors, and when, out of sheer curiosity, I asked why every single one wanted a degree in business, one student spoke for all. “I want to make a lot of money,” he said. When I pushed back and asked about other options for post-college careers (the Peace Corps, education, social work, non-profit outreach, etc.), another student stated, “I want to do some of that, but to be affective, I need money first.”
After watching writer, producer and director Charles Ferguson’s highly praised documentary “Inside Job,” it’s no secret where the desire for wealth these young people held so near and dear comes from. We live in an age where bigger is better, and the more something costs, the more superior it is to all else. We reward those in positions of power and privilege and simultaneously, yet indirectly, push the poor, uneducated and impoverished further into their own despair. Perhaps most pathetic of all is that we’re so numb to our behavior that we don’t even realize we do it anymore.
“Inside Job” documents the 2008 economic crisis that is still felt at the time of this review’s publishing, and likely at whatever time you’re reading these words thereafter. Ferguson pries into the complicated, jaded and downright confusing world that is national finance, business and economics. He interviews dozens of well-educated, well-dressed and well-spoken men and women who watched the American financial system implode thanks to the actions taken by a select few, and points both a finger of blame and super sharp questioning their direction, demanding answers and insight into how such actions thrust forward a domino effect so negatively felt by the entire country.
“Inside Job” was a special screening at the 2010 Cannes Film Festival, and also played at similar events in Toronto, Telluride and New York. At the 83rd Academy Awards, the film was awarded the Oscar for Best Documentary Feature. This is modern day muckraking and contemporary investigative journalism at its all time finest, reminiscent of far more famous and popular work like Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle, Eric Schlosser’s Fast Food Nation and Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma. Some may liken “Inside Job” to Michael Moore’s films, while critics may brush it off as either one-sided or not comprehensive enough. I’ll keep it simple and state that I found it enraging yet challenging, and somehow able to vividly detail a story I watched unfold around me, yet truly understood so little about, with such precision even the finest type A personality you know couldn’t touch with a ten foot pole.
For those not especially well versed in business and financial terminology, “Inside Job” might sound like a foreign language. Its only flaw is that it moves so quickly viewers might not totally pick up on its terms and their definitions. Things like derivatives, (de)regulation, subprime loans and diversified offerings are abundantly highlighted throughout “Inside Job,” making it at times feel like a combination of Business, Economics, Accounting, Marketing, Finance and Banking 101. Still, the film entertains by weaving its story chronologically to the present day, where, unsurprisingly, things haven’t changed. Big banks still run the show, individual customers are numbers and not names, and those at the top prey on those at the bottom.
According to “Inside Job,” things started to change in the financial world during the Reagan Administration. Smaller banks slowly started fading away, being consumed by bigger national entities like AIG, Fannie Mae, Freddie Mac, Countrywide Financial, Lehman Brothers, Bear Stearns, Merrill Lynch, Goldman Sachs and Morgan Stanley. By the turn of the century, a few of these giant companies had grown exponentially, and in an effort to maintain their dominance over their competitors, started offering things like home loans that sounded way too good to pass on to individual investors. They kept the money they received, and the agreement with the investor was then combined with other assets like auto loans and credit cards to form collateralized debt obligations which were sold to other big banks, who in turn bet against the loans and monies they’d just bought and sold to fail.
Confused yet? Join the club. “Inside Job” isn’t an easy film to follow, but it is broken into smaller parts that feature interviews with recognizable names, including George Soros, Eliot Spitzer, Paul Volcker and Barney Frank. Ferguson is extremely critical of the influence Wall Street bankers have in Washington D.C., and suggests that such conflicts of interest were significant in negatively impacting agencies in place to keep an eye on the banks. He also fearlessly points the finger at academics in America’s top universities who, in their spare time, sit on a board of directors for a big lender and make piles of cash. Without coming out and saying it, “Inside Job” suggests that everyone who engaged in these practices knew a super negative outcome was on its way sooner rather than later, yet did nothing to stop it.
I appreciated how Ferguson spread his criticism around to every presidential administration, including the current Obama administration, since the 1980s. Today, people like Timothy Geithner and Ben Bernanke, who “Inside Job” argues were in positions to stop or at least slow the impending crisis, advise the President. Alan Greenspan, after 19 years with the Federal Reserve, now does his own thing with his own company, yet still gives advice and direction while keeping a low profile. Isn’t there something wrong with the fact that those who made this mess are still able to influence the same industry where they goofed once?
As “Inside Job” wrapped up, I couldn’t help but think of two moments in other films that were equally applicable to the financial mess. 2005’s “V for Vendetta” features a nearly four minute speech where main character V (Hugo Weaving) addresses London and tells everyone to look into a mirror if they want to see those responsible for the state of their nation, yet also stirs anger and frustration toward the authoritative government. 1976’s “Network” features Howard Beale (Peter Finch) delivering a passionate, demanding speech begging audiences watching his broadcast to simply “get mad” at how the nation and world are crossing a point of no return, simultaneously commenting on the most significant ills of the 1970s.
“Inside Job” may not lead to any arrests for fraud, money laundering or other crime, and it might not change the structure of our broken financial system. But rest assured, it will inform you, make you angry and maybe motivate you to remember that if something sounds too good to be true, it probably is.
Sony Pictures Classics has put forth a very strong Blu-ray transfer for “Inside Job.” The 1080p High Definition 2.35:1 image is ever so sharp for a documentary, and despite being primarily interviews and C-SPAN footage from the last five or ten years, all looks clear and bright. Little to no grain is visible, and the film is edited well enough to make the transfers from scene to scene look effortless and smooth.
Spoken words are the star of the “Inside Job” audio track, which is easy to hear and crisp enough to sound like a drama or action flick. The English 5.1 DTS-High Definition Master Audio soundtrack reflects good attention to detail, and ensures that every criticism, every lie and awkward moment will be like music to your ears. Matt Damon narrates the film, with Ferguson conducting most of the interviews. Damon’s voice is pointed but soothing, while Ferguson’s tone is often direct and leaves little wiggle room for his subjects. Subtitle options include English, Spanish, French, Arabic, German, Hindi and Turkish.
Exclusive to Blu-ray are an added 60 minutes of deleted scenes to accompany a commentary with Ferguson and producer Audrey Marrs, a featurette titled “The Making of ‘Inside Job,'” and a smaller deleted scene offering. Lots of additional muckraking, no doubt.
A Final Word:
“Inside Job” estimates the financial crisis wound up costing the world somewhere in the $20,000,000,000,000 range. That’s $20 trillion too much, I’d argue. The mess this world will be digging out from was caused by a small group of privileged individuals who didn’t think the rules apply to them. Until we ensure that the rules do apply, history may be destined to repeat itself.