Monday, 9 April 2012

Inside Job

Lent credibility by a voiceover from Hollywood superstar Matt Damon, Inside Job has garnered an Oscar nomination and a widespread UK cinema release. Voiceover or not, it is well worthy of both.

The documentary looks at the current economic crisis, focusing on the rise of the American uber-bankers who created billions of imaginary dollars and then lost them all. Experts, eyewitnesses and economists provide enlightening or evasive interviews according to where their loyalties lie. Damon provides the exposition, explaining technical terms and references with the aid of simple and understandable graphics.
The man behind the Inside Job is Charles Ferguson. He wrote and directed the film and, more importantly, was the unseen interviewer grilling those providing testimony. His inquisitive but bullish style draws some surprising revelations from his interviewees and it’s enormously enjoyable watching some of the less scrupulous characters squirm in the face of his questioning.

Ferguson has divided the film into five digestible chapters which are preceded by a short segment about the collapse of Iceland’s economy. It’s a brilliant introduction to the subject matter: a miniature version of a financial problem writ large. Having privatised and deregulated to the point of insanity, Iceland saw borrowing balloon to levels akin to financial suicide. A beautiful and relatively self-sufficient country ended up being physically scarred as industry took over and financially ruined as the borrowing bubble burst.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the beginnings of global economic crash can be traced back to US presidents like Reagan and Bush Snr. In their determination to encourage a free-market economy they began the dismantling of financial controls which had protected the American economy since Roosevelt’s New Deal. With taxes reduced for even the richest citizens, enormous personal financial gain became a dangerously tempting prospect.

With a mantra of ‘greed is good’ (where has that been heard before?) the banking industry became crazed with profiteering, taking bigger and bigger risks in the pursuit of bigger and bigger profits. Ferguson does a magnificent job of making these practices absolutely clear. Technical terms such as CDOs (collateralised debt obligations) are vital understanding exactly what happened – and happily they are brilliantly explained by Damon’s sombre voiceover.

Having established the mechanics of the crash, Ferguson’s focus shifts to the characters behind the chaos. They are a shifty, disingenuous bunch who emerge with little credit. They have profiteered from the mess they have created to the tune of tens of millions of dollars and appear to have little regret. Indeed, many of them are still employed in Barack Obama’s administration or top positions in investment banks. It’s absolutely sickening and makes the figures involved in Britain seem like small fry.

And as if the bankers, CEOs and failed government advisors weren’t dislikeable enough, Ferguson also digs out a high-end madam and a Wall Street psychotherapist to dig further dirt on the rampant drug use and prostitution which characterised the excessive behaviour of those for whom money was no object.

Those on the peripheries do not escape Ferguson’s ire. Economists associated with America’s top universities also get both barrels as they show themselves to be corruptible – writing biased reports for financial recompense. The most obvious of these is Frederic Mishkin of the Columbia Business School. How he must regret granting an interview in which he is hauled over the coals, embarrassed and undermined by a line of questioning which leaves him absolutely reeling. It’s entertaining but also deeply disconcerting.

It’s hard to do such a film justice in a review: clearly an explanation of the technicalities and the sums of money involved is best coming from the experts. Let it be enough to say that this is an absolutely vital piece of documentary making which is accessible, understandable, powerful and gripping. Brilliant stuff.

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