There are few tougher propositions in the film world than the feature-length documentary. To stand out, and, seemingly, to impress the Academy, documentaries need to be helped by the cult of personality (Michael Moore’s Bowling For Columbine, Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth), high production values (March Of The Penguins) or a crowd-pleasing tone (Man On Wire, The Cove). Charles Ferguson’s Inside Job, a compelling account of the recent global financial crisis, is obviously aiming high, ticking off each quality to almost fatal effect.
A thrilling opening, using the economic bubble of Iceland as a starting point, asserts itself through fast-paced editing, a score that takes cues from Hans Zimmer, and cinematography that, to be honest, has no place in this tale of boardrooms, bankers and bailouts.
As the opening credits roll, we’re hit by the one-two punch of comfort food licensed music choices (Peter Gabriel’s Big Time) and sumptuous aerial shots of New York City, London, Shanghai, and other international business centres. Such slickness, plus the film’s backing by Sony Pictures Classics, gives Inside Job an immediate air of professionalism, one that is, thankfully, mirrored in Ferguson’s approach as a documentarian.
While not mincing words or failing to lay blame where it is due, the film safely sidesteps the cheap demagoguery of Moore, with the filmmaker’s voice taking a backseat to compelling infographics, eloquent talking heads, and the soothing, familiar voice of Matt Damon.
This production gloss and the recurring cast of academics, commentators and politicians, help to keep the film together, as Ferguson’s ambitions at times threaten to pull it apart. Over five chapters, he recounts the history of the collapse, not only going into great, informative depth about the risk-based strategies that put the global economy on the line, but looks back to the rise of the financial industry itself.
This makes Inside Job both a treatise on predatory lending, CDOs, derivatives and mortgage fraud, and an overview of the last thirty years of banking, which is given the overtones of a moral fable, where greed and the drive for higher profits has created a rift in society, leading Wall Street and its associated institutions to gamble with the fortunes of others.
However, beneath this veneer of respectability lies Inside Job‘s most surprising asset, an unpredictable sense of non-partisan anger. After leaning on the arguments of academics for the majority of the film, Ferguson takes great delight in turning the critical eye on them, in a frightening sequence that reveals just how intertwined the financial industry, the advisory committees in Washington DC and the schools of economics throughout the country are.
These voices, some of which have offered ways of framing and understanding this mess, are suddenly shown to be somewhat complicit, and watching their previously genial faces turn sour is delightful, even if it exposes the complicated nature of the situation.
Previously, lobbyists and spokespeople for the banks were easy targets, with simple humour teased from their stubborn doublethink and euphemistic talk. But, in the end, it seems no one can be trusted. Even Obama, who for some represented change and hope, is criticised in the final act as heading a “Wall Street government”.
Inside Job is an uncomfortable watch, and not because of the heady figures and baffling statistics. Its assessment is so total, and so bleak, that it may be informative, but it certainly isn’t empowering. A last gasp stab at inspiration, accompanied by aspirational crescendo and standing ovation rhetoric, is undercut by what came before.
In the age of gonzo sincerity and feel-good activism, this is a rather conflicted affair. Blessed with supreme polish, Inside Job isn’t a rallying cry to move its viewers to action, but it is nevertheless an important film, a consummate, engrossing look inside the glass skyscrapers that tower over the modern world.
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