What should have been an important movie is marred by a slanted and biased attack.
First, thank you to The Wrap for inviting me to a screening of Inside Job (click Inside Job for webpage) last night in Sherman Oaks. And thank you also to director Charles Ferguson for speaking about the film and answering questions after the screening.
I wasn’t able to articulate the question I would have liked answered last night but now can: Why lose such an important message in mean spirited and malicious attacks?
The movie starts with some quotes from finance professionals and commentators that set up the audience for the tone of the movie. I’m okay with that; the documentary needs a mission statement and this one’s is clear from the beginning.
And the first half or so of the movie is great. A lot of these questions should be asked and the answers exposed. Many Wall Street and other firms did a lot of questionable things during the time frame covered and the public deserves answers. Ferguson spares no administration from Clinton, to Bush, to Obama…which I admire. He treads softly around certain governmental participation in the factors leading to the bubble then skewers them in others. For example, when regulating derivatives was proposed, the poor lawyer who suggested it was attacked from industry and government both. Ferguson’s clips of executives from various firms evading questions, even very direct ones, while in front of various government panels is painful to watch. Sure, answering some questions honestly exposes your firm to potential liability but a certain level of ethics and acceptance of responsibility when presented with facts would have been reassuring. The lead up to the financial crisis is informative, concise and understandable.
The film’s photography and imagery are beautiful. Technically the film is lovely. It follows a coherent narrative flow and explains complex issues in a way understandable to many. I especially loved the sweeping aerial shots of Manhattan. Ferguson is a very skilled film maker.
Ferguson does get a few facts wrong – for example, while Wall Street CEOs earned high numbers, much of this compensation was in the form of stock, deferred comp and other illiquid (in the short term) payments…and in some cases was only paper money that melted away during the financial crisis. And he also makes a few puzzling arguments (the increasing distribution of wealth to the top 1% of the population may be relevant when analyzing the financial meltdown but he doesn’t explain the tie…which makes it puzzling). I can forgive him these points; he is clearly using facts selectively to support his mission statement. Ferguson doesn’t owe us a fair minded portrayal…he’s been clear from the start in defining his agenda.
But Inside Job veered off course completely when the personal attacks began; both in not substantiating them and in the mean spited way many interviewees were attacked after agreeing to speak (leading questions with no answer being shown on film, accusations, assumptions…). I was puzzled when he criticized professors who had advised and been in government for getting paid for their work and public speeches (and, in like spirit, is Ferguson getting paid for the documentary or any related paid speeches he is asked to do?). Economic theory is just that – theory. Only in actual application can we see if it will work. I don’t understand why academic economists shouldn’t do advisory work inside or outside government.
And having Elliot Spitzer as a moral high ground making indirect accusations/innuendos about prostitution and sex in the industry seems bizarre. First, I have my own issues with Spitzer as I believe his actions directly contributed to the financial meltdown. Next, his innuendos are tied in with direct (but unsubstantiated) accusations of rampant drug use and prostitutes as a part of Wall Street culture by a madam and psychologist with “Wall Street clients”. With no direct information just sweeping statements the tactic appears to be a trick meant to deflect from the real issues and just smear the industry.
Interestingly, Ferguson uses interview clips with Raghuram Rajan, who wrote Fault Lines and was at the IMF during the time in question and warned of the risks, to support his argument. Yet Rajan’s excellent book is more moderate and realistic and much more powerful than this biased movie.
The question and answer period after the film revolved around a wall street bashing free for all so Ferguson clearly found his audience last night. Too bad he didn’t aim for a serious discussion of the issues instead of sensationalism. I thought the first half of the movie was excellent and was disappointed with the ending. Perhaps that’s what it takes to get big studio support in this day and age. But, I wonder if, had his viewpoint not been pre-determined and antagonistic, he would have gotten access to a broader range of key potential interviewees and been able to provide a more rounded picture.
That movie is still waiting to be made.