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Movie Review: Inside Job

By James Beale
December 9, 2010

Near the end of "Inside Job," the Dean of Columbia's Graduate School of Business, Glenn Hubbard, angrily says, "This interview is over in three minutes...give it your best shot."

"Inside Job" responds: Okay. Over two hours, the documentary posits that the global economic meltdown of 2008 was precipitated partially by deregulation throughout the 1980s and '90s, but the most important factor was corruption from the inside out.

The film, a selection at the 2010 Cannes Film Festival, does this incredibly well, merging interviews, plentiful graphs, and reports to create a narrative that will likely make you leave the theater raging. Indeed, this is a film you should see - the concepts and politics are important to understand.

Narrated with a calm hand by Matt Damon, the documentary is directed by Charles Ferguson, who was nominated for an Academy Award for "No End in Sight." The film, to their credit, is never boring even while talking about collateralized debt obligation.

Even if you understand the main causes of the meltdown: Derivative trading, credit default swaps and predatory lending (among others), there are still new insights to be gained.

Hubbard's comment was in response to probes into his speaking appearances and outside compensation, which are probably from companies that he supports (and thus, they support him to teach favorable policies). The fourth of the five sections in the film looks at schools and the unlikely conspirators: Econ teachers and seemingly impartial evaluators, many of whom seem to be in the pockets of the bank.

And if you don't understand completely what a credit default swap is, the film is even more important. "Inside Job" doesn't spend too much time explaining the intricacies of the process, and some details remain fuzzy, but it's enough to move the story along.

Many documentaries rely on "gotcha" interviews as their bread and butter, but most big targets denied interview requests. Director Charles Ferguson did manage to land four interviewing targets, though. Frederic Mishkin in particular looks bad. A member of the Board of Governors for the Fed, he claims he resigned at the peak of the crisis in 2008 to return to Columbia to finish editing his textbook. Also, C-SPAN video from 2009 help to hear the CEOs back themselves into a corner.

Many information gaps are filled in by intriguing interviews with a wide range of people, including politicians, professors, journalists, authors, lawyers, lobbyists, a therapist and a memorable madam. Through these interviews, which span many countries, a portrait of the global collapse begins to emerge.

The story begins with President Reagan in 1981 and continues through mid-2010. The film is slightly liberal in its politics (deregulation is a constant target), but it doesn't really matter; the real villain is corruption and a system unwilling to change.

The American government is included in this - bureaucracy and lobbying kills a bill that would have regulated derivative trading in the late 1990s. Furthermore, President Obama, after campaign promises, kept most economic advisers or hired new ones fresh from companies that triggered the collapse.

"Inside Job" doesn't demonize deregulation or the government as much as it does the CEOs and lenders who walked away from bankrupt companies with hundreds of millions of dollars. The government is ineffectual, yes, but these men started it and knew what they were doing. Furthermore, Wall Street bonuses have only gone up since the crisis.

There are many mentions but few examples of the victims of the crisis: The working class. A factory worker in China and a non-English speaking family are the big examples, introduced late in the film, and they may not gain sympathy from a large chunk of the viewership. Also, the last moments of the film are groan-inducing.

The title of the film refers to those CEOs that claim that the recession was simply a market fluctuation, that it was unavoidable. There is fairly damning evidence otherwise.

3.5 stars/4

"Inside Job" is playing at The Lyric from Dec. 10 to Dec. 16.