Charles Ferguson's new documentary never says this, but here's the impression it left on me: If certain presidential cabinet members never change from administration to administration, what does that tell us about our vote?
It's possible our vote means diddly squat, although “Inside Job” doesn't go that far. If it's “about” anything, the movie reveals the pervasive influence of private financial institutions on the public sphere, and the serious conflict of interest that situation has created. What it shows in the process is that every administration since Reagan's has employed the same coterie of economic policy advisers and appointees, many culled from the same few big banks and investment companies. It's tempting to take the implication a step further and wonder if it's not the other way around — that it's the advisers who remain in office and the presidents who get appointed to serve them.
Again, that would be taking Ferguson's film a bit too far. Like “No End in Sight,” the director's examination of the war in Afghanistan, “Inside Job” is an attempt to be comprehensive and objective, a beefed-up episode of PBS's “Frontline” series. The movie begins with a trip to Iceland, a quiet, stable democracy until, from the movie's point of view, it began to copy the deregulation policies of countries like the United States, privatizing banks and so forth. The introduction serves as a lesson that while those behind privatization might claim to have the best interests of everyone involved, often it's everyone except the privatizers who end up holding the short end of the stick.
The film's next goal is to bring us up to speed on what was happening in the wild and wacky world of the U.S. financial markets during the big collapse of 2008, a mess brought on by unregulated derivatives and other similar money-making schemes. “Inside Job” gives the most succinct and easily digestible explanation of what these things are and how they nuked our economy that I've seen, while showing how they fit into the larger catastrophe embattling the nation. And it does it without putting you to sleep, at least not much.
The movie is worth seeing solely to learn once and for all what a credit default swap is, yet it goes much further to explain how our economic policy shapers pushed them onto the stage and why they intend to keep them unregulated despite the damage that's been done. Most important, we get an astute education on who these people are, where they come from and how they've come to be working behind the scenes through at least five presidential administrations.
“Inside Job” is an eye-opening report of an entrenched but unaccountable power structure guiding American economic policy. The problem with Ferguson's quarry this time is that it's powerful and elusive. In “No End in Sight,” the director dealt with politicians, policy analysts and military figures — people who for various reasons could be somewhat counted on to appear before cameras and answer questions. Chief executives and Fed chairmen have no reason or compunction to grant interviews. Ferguson must resort to finding easier prey, and the results aren't always favorable.
Subjects in “Inside Job” usually take the form of obscure policy wonks, people who might know a lot but don't strike the audience as particularly important. Ferguson also goes after university professors to show how systemic and far-reaching that conflicts of interest have become. These self-proclaimed experts seem at first bemused and then annoyed by Ferguson's questions. Watching the director challenge them like he's Chris Matthews taking on wily politicians results in something close to uncomfortable comedy.
But Ferguson makes his biggest misstep when he tries to connect ethical lapses to moral transgressions, using hearsay to paint Wall Street traders and banking executives as a bunch of coke-snorting, prostitute-visiting creeps. Perhaps it's true, but Ferguson doesn't do the rest of his film much good pursuing such a scurrilous line, which requires him to interview a woman who looks like a living blow-up doll (Kristin Davis, who, incidentally, recently ran unsuccessfully for governor of New York.)
As a whole, “Inside Job” is undeniably less sturdy than “No End in Sight,” but its flaws should not keep you away, especially if your knowledge of the workings of the U.S. financial markets is limited but your interest in your own future is keen. Its most compelling implication is that real change will only come when we elect someone willing to cast the moneylenders out of the temple. (PG-13) 108 min.