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Money for Nothing: Inside the Federal Reserve, a cluttered and uninspiring new documentary, suffers from an unenviable comparison to Inside Job, the 2011 Oscar winner that also covered the causes and repercussions of the 2008 financial crisis. But the two films’ framing devices differ significantly; while Inside Job takes a broader view of the relationship between Wall Street and its regulators, Money for Nothing aims to unpack the mysteries of the financial industry’s most important regulator, the Federal Reserve.
After establishing the public’s ignorance of the Fed with a brief series of man-on-the-street interviews (an overused device in this type of documentary), first-time filmmaker Jim Bruce offers up his thesis: Through the expansion of its powers, its cozy relationship with Wall Street, and its obsessive tinkering, the Fed has been the cause of every financial crisis in the last century.
As an introductory course in monetary policy, it works. This is an admirably wonky film, but its audience will likely be small; it’s too simplistic for experts but too dry for the masses. The film deftly explains the purpose and powers of the bank, but it never really uncovers what makes the Fed tick. Major shifts in policy—-such as when leaders at the Fed decided to start steering the economy instead of simply responding to crises—-are offered up without explanation, and the institution remains as mysterious at the end of the film as it was at the beginning.
Money for Nothing works best when it focuses on people. Bruce excels at characterization, giving us a series of heroes (Paul Volcker) and villains (Ben Bernanke), as well as a compelling portrait of Alan Greenspan, who served as the chair of the Fed from presidents Ronald Reagan to George W. Bush.
Greenspan is the classic flawed hero that good drama requires, and a feature-length documentary focusing just on him (with the economy as background) would have made a more engaging film. He orchestrated the economic boom of the 1990s with unprecedented mastery but became a villain after getting too cozy with Wall Street and stubbornly refusing to acknowledge the existence of a housing boom in the early 2000s. Greenspan is a fascinating figure, a Randian who ended up exerting a higher level of control over the economy than any previous Fed chair.
But when the film abandons Greenspan and reverts to its policy-driven narrative, it loses its focus. Perhaps that’s because it is caught between two movements. Some experts have argued for more transparency at the Federal Reserve, while others say that its independence and ability to make difficult decisions without the burden of public opinion is a necessary evil. Money for Nothing offers both arguments but settles on neither, and it ultimately comes no closer to unpacking the mysteries of its subject. At the very least, though, it opens the door for others to do so.