If you count the financial ruin charted by “Inside Job,” Charles Ferguson’s second feature may well be the most expensive doc ever; $1 trillion or so? $20 trillion? This infuriating, lucid look at the fundamental causes of financial meltdown and the crimes that continue to bring the world economy to its knees is shaming and indispensable. Opening with footage from Andri Snær Magnason’s “Dreamland,” a doc-essay on the crash (or “Kreppa”) in Iceland, with breathtaking aerial shots of the island’s otherworldly landscape alternating with a pocket narrative of its straits, Ferguson starts with a small, deadly instance of overextended banks causing wreck and ruin. The transition to Manhattan and the United States is slick and funny, with main titles accompanied by Peter Gabriel’s “Big Time,” gleaming aerial shots of the city’s towers alternating with casual shots of interviewees being prepped, accompanied by their “starring” credits. What follows is relentless. After brandishing his informed, won’t-take-junk-for-an-answer interview style in his Iraq war documentary, “No End In Sight,” it’s difficult to imagine anyone uninformed enough to sit for an interview with Ferguson. And yet some egos do. Some subjects know better: “Alan Greenspan refused to be interviewed for this film.” “Larry Summers refused to be interviewed for this film.” “Henry Paulson…” and on and on. What could be taken as a glib gimmick soon becomes a resounding tattoo of the unaccountability of the film’s subjects. There are other interviewees, the rare Cassandras who turned out to be the truth-tellers and seers. They’re still in the cold. A nasty subplot about the ubiquitous strippers, cocaine and prostitutes is cannily used as a palate cleanser of sorts, after sequences that are top-heavy with information. The analogy is inescapable, as well. The whoremongers and moneylenders have toppled the Temple. “The progressive deregulation of the financial sector since the 1980s gave rise to an increasingly criminal industry, whose ‘innovations’ have produced a succession of financial crises,” writes Ferguson in a director’s statement. “Each crisis has been worse than the last; and yet, due to the industry’s increasing wealth and power, each crisis has seen few people go to prison. In the case of this crisis, nobody has gone to prison, despite fraud that caused trillions of dollars in losses. Figures familiar from the news do not come off well under the sardonic, dry disdain of Ferguson’s unforgiving gaze. Looking for underlying structural flaws, he fixes on “academic conflicts of interest,” and pins one vain, haughty economist to the wall for his vast ties to his subjects, at which point the subject hopes to turn acidic, but instead turns merely snotty. “Will you turn that off?” he asks Ferguson. Dunno, sir, will you? Ferguson posits a “U. S. financial sector” of regulators and academics that can only further destroy the economy. He also rightly notes the Obama administration’s lack of a single major regulatory change. Ferguson ventures to England, France, Singapore and China as well, but the film’s ending is damning: the journey that begins at “Big Time” winds up at status quo. Little, if anything, has changed. “Inside Job” is essential viewing. Narrated by Matt Damon. 108m. (Ray Pride)
“Inside Job” opens Friday at the Music Box. The trailer is below.
Ray Pride is Newcity’s film critic and a contributing editor to Filmmaker magazine.
His multimedia history of Chicago “Ghost Signs” will be published soon. Previews of the project are on Twitter and on Instagram as Ghost Signs Chicago. More photography on Instagram.