Any mention of the global financial crisis is almost certain to trigger something of an agnostic reaction in most people. We’re aware of its existence, aware that something happened involving things called subprime mortgages, aware that a lot of people lost a lot of money and that our tax pounds flooded to the aid of the very institutions that were to blame for the whole sorry affair.
This said, unless you or someone close to you was unfortunate enough to be caught in the fallout, for most people, it still seems to be something abstract that happened to other people somewhere far away, be that in either geographic or socioeconomic terms. The ‘worst economic disaster since The Great Depression’ came and went as we were all busy moaning about petrol prices and talking about what was on the telly and how rubbish our favourite group of footballers are, much as we had always done.
And now, almost three years since the proverbial steaming chod struck the fan, it’s easy to forget that it happened at all. This does those that did bear the brunt of the collapse a huge disservice, as does the fact that the Western political system appears to be so reliant on the financial sector that it’s unable to effect any tangible change to the way business is done in the higher echelons of corporate skullduggery.
The odd pronouncement from the pudgy, Bullingdon-stupefied cheeks of David Cameron or George Osborne, stating that we simply must reduce the national debt at the expense of everything else, pointing the finger of blame at the previous government. The rising cost of everyday living and the crippling contraction in public spending is something the average person is only too aware of, and it’s down to documentaries such as David Sington’s new offering, The Flaw, to remind us that the global financial crisis and the fact your local library is no more are inextricably linked. As a result, the film needs to do little to grab your attention, as, much like with last year’s Inside Job, it’s difficult to watch The Flaw without becoming really rather angry indeed.
The flaw to which the title of the film refers is the unforeseen, yet inevitable breaking point of (former head honcho of American economic policy) Alan Greenspan’s efficient market theory, a capitalist, ‘greed is good’ assumption that free markets will self-correct and manage themselves to such a degree that political influence is unnecessary. A simple premise, and at the film’s opening we see Greenburg himself fumbling to explain how all the leading economists in the world failed to understand the basic physical principle that every bubble, in the end, has to burst.
Across the film’s brisk, yet detailed, one hour and twenty-one minutes, Sington attempts to document the shifts in economic policy and the subsequent redistributions of wealth that lead to the insurmountable levels of debt that caused the house of cards that was the last decade’s stab at the American dream to collapse.
We’re taken on an enlightening journey across the history of American 20th and 21st century capitalism, and though there’s probably much of what you’d expect (bankers and economists appearing as talking heads, plenty of coloured graphs, with lines and percentages representing the varying degrees of utter disaster), the film sits comfortably apart from those to which it can be justifiably compared.
In a refreshing departure from Inside Job‘s goading and accusatory (yet joyously chastising) finger pointing and Michael Moore’s megaphone polemics, Sington doesn’t appear at all in the film. Instead, the interviewees give the facts according to their own experiences, and without a singular guiding voice spelling out its own linear, agendised take on the events, the interviews provide a patchwork narrative that creates a cohesive and thorough picture, without falling into the traps of poppy reductionism or tediously incomprehensible didactics.
All are refreshingly frank, and included are the expected selection of economic academics and bankers who don’t attempt to gloss over the mistakes that led to the current situation. With the top 0.1% richest Americans earning 12% of its total annual income, we’re told of the deeply engrained systemic inequalities in wealth distribution, and how Wall Street profits from the spiraling debts of the Average Joes and Joannes, to such an effect that an extra $1.5 trillion makes its way up from the pockets of the proletariat to the vaults of this wealthy elite each and every year.
We are also introduced to a selection of these ordinary folk, who were taken in by the promises made to them, who now, after the dust has settled, have to pick up the pieces of whatever it is they have left. The inclusion of ‘the people on the ground’, as it were, gives the film the human element that documentaries sometimes overplay for melodramatic effect. However, here they merely tell their stories, leaving the tragic and indelible impression that, in their place, you may well have made the same choices. As objective as the film tries to be, the facts cannot help but paint the system as corrupt and the victims as just that.
And despite the director’s apparent absence, the film’s strongest asset is how it manages to cover a subject like complex economics (a topic that is, and let’s not beat around the bush here, dull enough to those without a direct interest in it to induce some kind of violent, spasmodic embolism) in such a way that is both fascinating and edifying. This is largely thanks to the interviews Sington chose to include, clearly, but by the end of the film, you’ll have a crystal clear understanding of exactly what transpired in America back in 2008.
Sington also intercuts the interviews with snippets of pro-American Dream cartoons and commercials from the golden age of industrial capitalism between the thirties and sixties, and these welcome interludes prove that he’s not above injecting a grim sense of irony into the tale he’s telling. The inclusion of a Cribs-style tour of a mansion in The Hamptons , recently purchased by a wealthy banker, does sit at odds with the level tone of the rest of the film, seemingly included to do nothing more than further irritate an already irritated viewer.
The film does apply all its focus to America, too, which is possibly understandable, considering it was at the epicentre of the crisis. Britain and Iceland are mentioned in passing. However, those looking for a more global picture may be left somewhat disappointed.
There’s also the issue of whether The Flaw works as a film. It’s currently on limited release in the UK,and the main problem with it is that it simply isn’t cinematic, exciting or revelatory enough to warrant the price of a cinema ticket. It’s certainly an assured documentary that is executed exceptionally well. Yet, Inside Job, unfortunately, beat it to the punch, and the first episode of the BBC series, All Watched Over By Machines Of Loving Grace (which also focused on the reasons behind the crisis, albeit from a completely different perspective), exhibited just as much visual flair and depth of detail on the small screen.
Stipulating that a documentary has to be flashy and controversial to warrant a cinematic release is ridiculous, of course. However, each successful feature documentary has always brought something new and exciting to the table. The Flaw hasn’t, but as a rounded, captivating and enlightening account of an event most of us wish we knew more about, it’s still recommended viewing. Just, possibly, not on the big screen.