One of the main points of 'Inside Job,' the latest documentary from Oscar-nominee Charles Ferguson ('No End in Sight'), is that all those responsible for the financial meltdown should be put behind bars. And so it's appropriate that the film occasionally feels like a great courtroom drama. Sometimes in negative ways, though, as when the filmmaker, a former software entrepreneur, leads the witnesses -- or interviewees -- aligned to his argument. But when he goes after the bad guys, particularly economic experts Frederic Mishkin and Glenn Hubbard, he's a bold, relentless prosecutor.
I almost wished the camera had panned around to show Spencer Tracy or James Stewart on the other side of the room grilling these men. Yet all we have is Ferguson's voice coming from off screen. And of course, there is no George C. Scott district attorney type (and yes, I understand that I'm slightly reversing the prosecutions and defense roles for this allegory), because this is after all a one-sided work -- not that there's anything wrong with that -- and the audience interested in yet another financial crisis movie is hardly a balanced jury of those alleged wrongdoers' peers.
But as far as preaching to the anti-capitalist choir goes, 'Inside Job' is at least better researched, more informative, more exhaustive and even funnier than Michael Moore's version of the story from last year, 'Capitalism: A Love Story.' Ferguson may be slightly too present this time around, especially for a film that's so, so heavily steered by Matt Damon's narration (close your eyes, it's like listening to the actor voicing an audio book on the subject), but I guess we can be glad he doesn't indulge in silly on-camera shenanigans.
'Inside Job' ultimately has more integrity, plays more like a super-hip 'Frontline' episode (say 'Inside the Meltdown' and/or 'The Warning') than the typical modern political doc. Unfortunately, it also takes quite a while to really get going. The format is somewhat like that of 'No End in Sight,' and it similarly plays like a short-term history -- 'Inside' even opens with a direct title screen stating, "this is how it happened," because what Ferguson does is make the most comprehensive, exhaustive, concisely simplified presentation of a complex topic. His last film did this for the U.S. invasion and occupation of Iraq. Now we get the Cliff Notes explaining, in as lay terms as possible without alienating educated viewers, the recent economic disaster.
For the most part it's not as dense, nor does it have the same chronological sort of narrative flow that 'No End in Sight' benefits from. But it is also more investigative, though very rarely does Ferguson seem to be learning or acquiring new viewpoints or evidence in the process of his filming. This might explain the "leading," which consists of him asking a lengthy question he knows the answer to, and then getting that simple answer ("yes") from subjects, mainly journalists, or of him pursuing confessions from his villains, some of whom end up admitting on camera their regret in agreeing to participate. Hubbard, for instance, only confesses to being foolish to have been so "polite."
During a Q&A following the film's New York Film Festival press screening, Ferguson admitted to being even more hard on these guys in footage that didn't make it into the final cut. He eased up especially on the stuff with Mishkin, claiming he was advised by colleagues not to destroy the man so terribly that the audience would end up sympathizing with him (I'm reminded of the resultant audience sympathy for Charlton Heston with Moore's 'Bowling for Columbine'). I wish he had also been steered away from other harsh tactics, like the employment of oft-ironic soundbites followed by revealing identification captions -- clearly held back for comic intent -- during the opening credits sequence. For a film that otherwise means to simply chronicle and clarify the facts and story to us mainstream folk (who barely knew what derivatives were two years ago, let alone who most economic figures were/are), many interviewees are given unfair introductions. Regardless of whether they're crooks or not, any lawyer would object to this sort of thing.
'Inside Job' is not a courtroom drama, though. It's not even really a legal-minded documentary. It's an entertainment, at the very most, for those of us who want some kind of vilification with which to get relief, some of it through laughter. In that way, I guess, it's hardly different from Moore's films. But on paper, Ferguson's would look more like a serious non-fiction tome, while Moore is definitely for the humor section. With any exhaustive expository doc like 'Inside Job' I constantly wonder if I would have been better off reading a literary equivalent. At the NYFF Q&A, author Charles Morris ("The Trillion Dollar Meltdown"), who accompanied Ferguson, said this film is better than any of the books on the subject because movies are more powerful. I instead think it only works differently for the way the medium exposes personalities, facial expressions that can't be communicated on the page. And this film has some beautiful doozies in that regard.
For the most part I'm disappointed with 'Inside Job.' I think in the end there's just too much to discuss with this topic, and while 'No End in Sight' was likely more easily focused, it also just did a better job making me feel up to speed. Ferguson said he regrets having to leave a lot out, yet I also think he could have cut some things here and there, too -- stuff involving prostitution and some of his interview with Eliot Spitzer veer a bit off course and anyway overlap with Alex Gibney's latest, 'Client 9' (Gibney produced Ferguson's first film, by the way, but not this one). This isn't to say it's not a worthy documentary for its topic and themes. If you're an idiot when it comes to economics, like myself, you'll probably come away with more understanding, more than you'd get from most other attempts (though I hear "Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps" really dumbs it down for us).
As for its case, though, I don't think 'Inside Job' holds up too well. Ferguson doesn't convince me that any of the bankers, politicians or economists deserve prison sentences. And if we already believe greed is in fact not good, we're only reminded. If we believe in greater regulation, ditto. Salary and bonus caps, ditto. Frustration with Obama's administration, ditto. Ferguson hopes the film will unite everyone in agreement "on the importance of restoring honesty and stability to our financial system." It's good, but not that good. Will he settle for another Oscar nomination and similar accolades instead?
'Inside Job' opens in NYC October 8 and in LA the following week. Wider release is expected to follow.