An anti-Cinderella story is told in the more painfully true Inside Job, Charles Ferguson’s documentary about the United States’ current economic crisis. You don’t have to understand all the statistics, or terms like “securitization,” “collateralized debt obligation,” or the ubiquitous “subprime loan.” All that’s required to get your blood boiling is believing that $161,000,000 is an awfully big severance for someone whose corporation ran itself to the ground. That, and trusting when numerous talking heads summarize a situation by saying, “That was nuts.”
Yes, Inside Job somehow manages to be a breezy look at a catastrophic situation, and is all the more successful for it. As Matt Damon narrates, numbers and abstract economic concepts fly by in a dissection of our country’s financial near-collapse, yet Ferguson keeps you riveted. It starts with a comparatively simple look at Iceland’s current crisis, its smooth, “modern” economy now in shambles after the privatization of banks. (And, in turn, a head-scratching thumb’s up from the U.S.’s ratings system as the banks grew bigger and more powerful.) Then an Icelandic commentator remarks, “But this is a universal problem. In New York, you have the same problem…right?”
Cue Peter Gabriel’s “Big Time” and slick opening credits, with views of the Big Apple’s skyline punctuated by incriminating blurbs from players good and bad. What follows is a tale of sex, drugs, and horrifying business decisions. Divided into five chapters starting with “How We Got Here” and ending—most infuriatingly—with “Accountability,” the film reaches back to the 1980s, when financial companies went public and Ronald Reagan kicked off a 30-year period of bank deregulation. (The former leading to the finance sector getting rich, the latter to conglomerates forming.)
Then there was the Internet bubble and those dastardly subprime loans, which allowed more and more people to qualify for mortgages because lenders, literally passing the buck to investment banks and other investors, no longer were penalized in the case of foreclosure. As Rep. Barney Frank succinctly puts it, “Thirty years ago if you went to get a loan for a home, the person lending you the money expected you to pay him or her back.” Between 2000 and 2003, the number of home loans granted nearly quadrupled, which one commentator compares to a “ticking time bomb.”
This, in the most simplified terms, resulted in a big money party, with wannabe homeowners getting loans they couldn’t afford and Wall Street players getting even richer. They spent their wealth on planes, mansions, and, allegedly, high-end prostitutes and cocaine. (The film offers the interesting results of an MRI study that showed that winning money stimulates the same part of the brain as coke.) And there was no one in the government to stop them: Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, and President Obama appointed to influential financial positions former CEOs and board members of the very companies that eventually self-destructed.
Which leads to the “Accountability” segment of the film. Essentially, there has been none. No one from Lehman Brothers, Merrill Lynch, AIG, or anyone else who contributed to or benefited from the financial collapse has been criminally prosecuted, and, as noted earlier, many were sent off into the sunset with their wallets ridiculously fat. It’s maddening to watch some of their supporters here, hemming and hawing when Ferguson asks them tough questions or outright lying about the worst offenders’ misdeeds. Meanwhile, Americans are out of jobs and homes, with Damon relating one fact that may really hit you in the gut: “For the first time in history, average Americans are less prosperous and have less education than their parents.”