Claire Fisher reviews Inside Job, Charles Ferguson (2011)
Michael Moore’s chillingly surreal documentary Roger and Me which covered the gradual desertion of the town of Flint, Michigan by industrial-giant-going-global General Motors, was a box office hit. And understandably so – the unadulterated images and stories representing the loss of dignity of the town’s inhabitants, counterposed with the indifference of Mr Roger Smith, the owner of G.M. could only but attract the cinematic voyeurs of the ‘lost generation’. Allegories abound – poverty-line surviving inhabitants bludgeoning and skinning worthless rabbits for sale as meat (now too old to sell as pets), evictions on Christmas Day and the like, tug at our naturally empathetic side and allow us to imagine that, yes, we know what the recession’s all about.
Charles Ferguson would beg to differ, I presume, with the release of Inside Job – a documentary cum seminar on the big bad scary world of Wall Street banking, and its catastrophic collapse in 2008. With expansive shots of the phallic Manhattan skyline, ‘heist’ style introduction and narrator Matt Damon (of Bourne Identity fame) adding a celebrity edge, it’s not hard to imagine what this documentary has in store for you… lots of men taking about money. Smug smiles and desperate attempts to appear innocent abound. Penthouses and prostitutes interspersed with graphs which suddenly turn from blue to red during that fated year are threaded through the film as an attempt to expose the crisis as a moral failure, not a systematic one.
Superficially, then, a good excuse to mutter about the unsound ethics and personal taste of these men (Whitehouse politicians not excluded), whose de-regulation of American financial models was to blame for the continuation of the destruction of towns such as Moore’s beloved Flint. And, in order not to forget that this crisis has an international flavour, we are treated with images of the token unemployed Far-Easterner – sporadic shots of whom pay only lip service to the global effects of Wall Street’s decedent behaviour.
Certainly it teaches novices the backbone of the structure of the process of deregulation (without going as far as to explain ‘complex’ derivatives), which in turn allow for the concrete exposure of the certain fact that bankers did knowingly act in an underhand and potentially destructive manner through manipulation of bodies such as rating agencies and government. But we knew that already; it’s hard to imagine that anyone in the audience was shocked into a moral outrage over this standardised and (now) public facet of capitalism. Scratching the surface was a phrase that came to mind.
Disappointingly, the infamous CEOs of Goldman Sachs, Freddy Mac, Fannie Mae etc. all declined to be interviewed, leaving us with academics, advisors and bankers such as Nouriel Roubini, Barney Frank, George Soros, Eliot Spitzer and others, who helpfully provide hours of entertainment with their stumbling attempts to elucidate their innocence to a world already party to their dirty little secret. One wonders exactly why they still partake in this charade – perhaps the Bank of Scotland’s management’s inability to show grace and gratitude for the workers’ role in the financial bailout sheds light on some common character traits – the bankers are personally unable to recognise that they are now fundamentally indebted to the tax payer. This could also partly explain the continuation of the bonus culture, which this financial year has scaled an all-time high. This is what Ferguson would like you to think, anyway. To him, de-regulation is the result of a group of bad-boys recklessly playing God.
A quick look into Ferguson’s personal history elucidates this point of view. As co-founder of software company Vermeer Technologies Inc., he, happily I assume, sold his developments to Microsoft in 1996 for a share of $133 million. Now he gets his kicks out of making documentaries. However, I find it hard to believe that taking Microsoft’s millions and filming Inside Job is as clear an act as robbing from the rich and giving to the poor. He is the ‘good capitalist’: one who believes that the regulated system works, and only fails when renegades such as Hank Paulson (former CEO of Goldman Sachs) and Alan Greenspan corrupt and rip apart the once ‘lawful’ practice of market economics. Indeed, I was less than blown away by his call to arms: ‘I am optimistic that over time the American people will come to their senses and force their government to enact a serious regulatory regime to prevent this from continuing to happen.’ Strong stuff … for a movie funded by Microsoft anyhow.
Mainstream documentaries that attempt to challenge the Western capitalist system are few and far between. One could say that this is a result of the media’s de facto monopoly on review column space; any film that aggressively and intelligently challenges capitalism will automatically be lumped in the ‘crazy radical’ category, and will then in turn receive poor box office revenue, and so are never bought by distribution companies in the first place. It’s telling then, that Ferguson’s Inside Job has met with critical success from the bourgeois media, where as the response to Michael Moore’s Capitalism: A Love Story was rather divided. Indeed one cannot put the two films into one box, merely because they are left of centre analyses on the 2008 financial crisis. Say what you will of Moore’s dubious stylistic innovations and metaphorical pranks, he is the man who called for the abolition of capitalism in front of millions of people. He was clearly not explicit enough however; a symbolic example being when he uses the phrase ‘the other C word’, to suggest communism as an alternative. The question as to whether Moore is a Marxist or not still bothers me, as it does with people across the political spectrum. Slapping a jazzy version of The Internationale onto his end credit sequence in Capitalism only proves that he is just a big tease – if he was serious about the real-life future Internationale, we would, I assume, know by now. With popcorn and coke consumed, these vague tips of the hat to Marxist culture and theory die right there, in the empty theatre.
The question as to whether Ferguson is hiding any Marxist aspirations is laughable, of course. The mainstream cultural and political education of our society will only continue in one vein for the foreseeable future. Unless you can find a Marxist with 133 million dollars.
 the exception being the New York Post who’s review bordered on the inhumane: ‘We’re asked to feel bad over how our banks hurt Chinese manufacturing – cry me a river’