Review: 'Inside Job'

(Three-and-a-half stars)

Sometimes a good documentary is one for the history books. "Inside Job" -- written, produced and directed by Charles Ferguson -- may end up being that sort of film. The wounds recounted may be too fresh just now for "Inside Job" to be broadly appreciated, but it's a cogent synthesis of the factors leading to, defining and resulting from the global economic crisis of the last couple of years.

There's no question that "Inside Job" is wonky in its studious explanations of derivative schemes, credit default swaps and collateralized debt obligations. Daily readers of Bloomberg News will probably sigh and think, "Tell me something I don't know," while those like me, with only the most limited understanding of this financial sleight-of-hand, will inch a bit closer to enlightenment thanks to Ferguson's patient explanations.

In any case, Ferguson works hard to give his documentary big-time cinematic polish. This includes Peter Gabriel's song "Big Time" (which accompanies aerial photography of New York City under the opening credits), narrator Matt Damon to deliver those economics lectures, and the unusual choice to frame the film in a panoramic aspect ratio usually reserved for epic (or "arty") films.

Even the most casual observers of the economic crisis will have to consider much of "Inside Job" to be old news, but Ferguson delivers it doggedly and without succumbing to blatant emotional appeal. As such, the film isn't as entertaining or wide-ranging as Michael Moore's "Capitalism: A Love Story," but the journalistic tone contributes to the film's sobering effect. With clear-eyed repetition, Ferguson drums in the decades-long pattern (abetted by the administrations of both major political parties) of Wall Street banditry. The tip of Ferguson's spear points squarely at the only sane solution: strong and incorruptible government regulation of investment and investment banking.

Ferguson takes his shots, including some at Obama for bending to banking interests. (Robert Gnaidza of consumer advocacy group the Greenlining Institute puts it plainly: "It's a Wall Street government"). Former Federal Reserve board governor Frederic Mishkin and former Under Secretary of the Treasury for the Bush administration David McCormick squirm a bit under Ferguson's spotlight, while Glenn Hubbard, former chief economic advisor to Bush, does his best to remain slippery.

The talking heads found defending our culture of economic amorality are emblematic of the problem but hardly the worst of the culprits (most of those declined to be interviewed, natch). Among the "friendly witnesses" are Paul Volcker, George Soros, Barney Frank, Eliot Spitzer and Raghuram Rajan, the former IMF chief economist whose warning flag was dismissed.

Intriguing sidelines include discussion of the psychology and brain chemistry informing Wall Street's vice-ridden decisions, and business academia's blase attitude to conflicts of interest. Still, the blunt impacts of this recession post-mortem are all too familiar: the endangered middle class, gutted retirement funds, lost jobs in the tens of millions, and, looking ahead, an estimated total of 15 million home foreclosures.

Meanwhile, as Ferguson notes with quiet anger, those responsible walked away with millions in personal compensation.

Rated PG-13 for some drug and sex-related material. 1 hour, 49 minutes.

— Peter Canavese

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