Watching Wall Street squirm

A devastating documentary unravels the causes of the 2008 financial meltdown

by Brian D. Johnson

Watching Wall Street squirm

U.S. Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner at a hearing in Washington in 2009 | Joshua Roberts/Bloomberg News/Getty Images

The surging popularity of documentaries in recent years can be personified by two ungainly, cartoon-like personalities: Michael Moore and the emperor penguin. Moore has directed four of the 10 top-grossing documentaries during the past decade, including Farenheit 9/11, which holds the No. 1 position. Right behind it, March of the Penguins leads a host of nature and environmental films that occupy another five spots. This year has produced a remarkable crop of hard-hitting documentaries, films about big issues designed to sound an alarm and make us angry. But they have a more sobering style; they’re not personality-driven. There’s no Moore or Bill Maher or Al Gore performing for the camera as a hectoring tour guide. These are movies that pummel us with pure fact.

Lucy Walker’s Countdown to Zero marshals indisputable data to show that the world is closer to the brink of nuclear catastrophe than at any time since the Cold War. With Waiting for “Superman”, David Guggenheim, the director of An Inconvenient Truth, charts the dire crisis of America’s school system. And now, in a devastating documentary called Inside Job, Charles Ferguson unravels the causes of the 2008 financial meltdown, laying blame with the tenacity of a criminal prosecutor.

Unlike Moore, who ridiculed terms like “derivatives” and “credit default swaps” as baffling mumbo-jumbo in Capitalism: A Love Story, Ferguson actually tries to explain this stuff. If Moore is the blue-collar class clown, a loud-mouthed Little Tramp, Ferguson is the best teacher you never had—a political-science scholar, author and tech guru. After tackling the Iraq war in his first film, the Oscar-nominated No End In Sight (2007), he now sets out to prove that the world economic crisis was no accident, but the entirely avoidable result of unpunished criminal behaviour by a rogue financial industry drunk on deregulation. Inside Job’s riveting investigation may be too complex, comprehensive—and cool-headed—to rival Moore’s films at the box-office. But it’s essential viewing.

Like Walker and Guggenheim, Ferguson does not appear onscreen. We just hear his voice pop up in some of his interviews, as he nails his culprits to the wall and watches them squirm. Narrator Matt Damon does most of the talking, but he too stays off camera, delivering a motherlode of evidence in a tone of icy neutrality.
Inside Job shows how a compact, risk-averse U.S. financial industry ended four decades of stability with wild growth in the deregulated ’80s, consolidating into a few massive firms that binged on debt and took the economy down. We see how banks, insurance companies and rating agencies colluded to jack up revenues by off-loading risk and gambling on the failure of the triple-A-rated junk they were selling. But the film’s most damning portrait is of America’s financial brains trust—the cabal of federal treasury secretaries, Federal Reserve Board chairmen and academic advisers who worked hand-in-glove with the companies they let run rampant.

Ferguson conducts interviews with 42 subjects, ranging from the banks’ top lobbyist to a therapist who treats Wall Street executives addicted to cocaine and hookers. The chief villains in his scenario—federal bigwigs like Larry Summers, Henry Paulson, Ben Bernanke and Timothy Geithner—refused to talk. But Ferguson corners some key academic apologists for the financial sector. In the juiciest scene, he skewers Glenn Hubbard, dean of Columbia’s business school and former chief economic adviser for president George W. Bush. Comparing him to a medical researcher taking money from a drug company, he asks if he saw no conflict of interest in promoting derivatives and deregulation while earning large sums from the companies that benefited from his opinions. You can practically see the steam coming out of Hubbard’s ears. “This isn’t a deposition,” he snaps. “I was polite enough to give you time. You have three more minutes. Give it your best shot.” He does. It’s a Michael Moore gotcha moment, but there’s no camera on the director—just the subject, who needs no help in hanging himself.




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Watching Wall Street squirm

  1. I wonder if there is any reference to the US governments 20 year old mandate to help low incomers buy houses they could not afford? Something tells me, probably not….

    • Oh ya, that program is totally what caused the melt down. Totally. Absolutely nothing else was a factor.

    • What business does the U.S. government have promoting houses to people who cannot afford them? And what business does investment bankers have packaging them off to unsuspecting investors around the globe and covering their asses for profit? A shameful way for the United States to go down in history … bringing the world to the brink of economic disaster! Out of control! Way out of control!

  2. Exactly – If it doesn't deal with Fannie and Freddie and Barney, then it is incomplete. Damon wouldn't agree to narrate something that was truly even handed and didn't just take shots at Wall Street.

    • What about Michael Lewis? Is he is libtard, Big Hollywood shill? Read The Big Short and see if you still think the meltdown is the fault of the working poor

  3. I am profoundly amazed at just how resistant many people are to the facts. This was an organized looting operation with enablers placed in regulatory positions, instigators on Wall Street, and bought polititians in the executive and legislative branches. The narrative is part of the public record. Just follow it back to the shills that started saying government was the problem.

  4. It goes well beyond Wall Street, and much of the carnage can be laid at the feet of irresponsible central bankers whose response to every economic shock is to lower interest rates and print money. If interest rates were kept several points higher, the Wall Street bandits would not have had the money available to do what they did, and banks would never have been able to push mortgages on the financially indigent.

    • Totally agree.

  5. Am I just CRAZY but why doesn’t the American peoeple lay the blame at the feet of where it rightfully goes? Their own! The let it happen because they stuffed their ears full of Macdonald’s so they can’t hear, they close their eyes so they can’t see, they turn away from anything real. The American people as a collective nation allowed this to happen by believing complete deregulation of the financial sector and after the near economic collapse the American people blame their won government for the economy when it’s their fault as a whole. No one person or say group of ten is responsible, it’s the greed of a few and the ignorance of the many that gave birth to that mess.

  6. On "Iinside Job "the producer showns that we live in a "me world" were__the flying of flags,lapel pins are a facade. The " American dream" __has become a way to propagate fantacies with one hand ,and steal with the other It is difficult to seperate the mafia from financial advisers.I don't believe this was the original intention. regards B.J. Lind

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