Movie review: Inside Job

In the award-winning documentary “Inside Job,” director Charles Ferguson tweezes out the particulars of the 2008 global financial crisis.

Ferguson reminds the viewer time and time again: it wasn’t an accident – the biggest financial catastrophe the world has ever seen – but a quiet storm brought on by 30 years of deregulation, risky financial instruments, conflicts of interest, fraud, toxic loans and a handful of CEOs who eventually destroyed their own companies.

Most of the subject matter is old news; a sizeable collection of journalists and authors has written about the near collapse of the financial system. But “Inside Job” gives you a peek into the convoluted Wall Street culture and introduces many of the supporting players who helped defeat the U.S. economy.

While financial bigwigs were enthusiastic as the real estate bubble was growing and the markets continued to climb, some skeptical economists and advocacy groups came forward with papers and technical analysis exhibiting foreseeable problems. They were ignored.

But most prominent CEOs and major financial players (many of whom were not willing to sit down with Ferguson) forged ahead. Aside from Scott Talbot, an unconvincing lobbyist and a couple of arrogant economics professors at Columbia and Harvard universities, “Inside Job” features people who share the director’s opinions.

Ferguson shines a dim light on all of the corruption and fraud that took place seemingly without consequence. Citibank helped funnel drug money out of Mexico. UBS helped wealthy Americans evade taxes. Fannie Mae overstated its earnings. The list goes on.

Much of the film is disturbing, detailing how the financial services industry paved the way for the rich to get richer and the poor to get, well, broke, unemployed, homeless and taunted with loans destined to go bad.

Equally frustrating are the snippets of testimonies by excessively paid CEOs and traders from firms such as Goldman Sachs who state under oath that there was no conflict of interest when the company promoted risky investments and bet against them at the same time.

All the while, the three most prominent credit rating agencies, Moody’s, Standard & Poor’s and Fitch, were giving volatile bundled securities the highest ratings while taking money from the very banks that approved subprime mortgages in the toxic bundles.

Ferguson directed a surprising amount of finger-pointing at the academic community, accusing prominent financial players teaching at top business schools – many of whom received hundreds of thousands of dollars for serving on boards of financial institutions such as AIG and Lehman Brothers ­– of corrupting the study of economics.

Glenn Hubbard, the dean of Columbia’s graduate business school got especially crabby during an interview with Ferguson in a Michael Moore-like moment captured on film. Hubbard was a key engineer of the Bush tax cuts in 2003 when he held the title of chairman of the Council of Economic Advisors.

Though economic conditions have worsened over the past decade, Reagan, Clinton, Bush, and Obama have done little to stop deregulation or control the swollen financial services sector.

So what now? Many American companies are behind their foreign competitors, we live in a more unequal society, higher education is increasingly out of reach, and Wall Street VIPs have infiltrated the government.

The documentary paints a grim picture but ends with a sliver of hope, the only element of the story that makes it more Hollywood than a documentary.

Maybe the American masses can actually do something tangible to reform the financial system and break down these impenetrable walls. Or maybe Ferguson should have taken a turn in front of the camera at this point so we could all interject as he did so candidly throughout the film and ask: “Are you serious?”

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