Inside Job – a devastating exposé of the financial crisis

Stephen Barber gives his thoughts on this Oscar-winning documentary: a contentious analysis into the sources behind the economic downturn.

This 2011 Oscar-winning film for Best Documentary Feature is not only a brilliant exposition of the great financial crisis of 2007-09, but also a devastating critique of the US government/Wall Street nexus that lay at its centre.

First shown at the Cannes Film Festival last year, Charles Ferguson’s critically acclaimed Inside Job is currently showing at leading cinemas throughout the UK and in selected locations across Europe. The DVD comes out in the UK on 13 June.

The film, persuasively narrated by Matt Damon, takes the form of a series of interviews with leading participants and commentators, supported by impressive graphics, aerial cityscapes of downtown Manhattan and images of abandoned new-built mid-Western housing estates.

The story begins with a brief account of Iceland’s financial collapse, as an extreme example of the far-reaching damage from America’s sub-prime crisis. Iceland had been hailed as a supply side miracle. It had enjoyed a decade-long boom as a result of financial deregulation, followed by unrestrained lending by its three main banks, which later collapsed. Tellingly, two of the later interviewees – both US academics who had spent their careers moving between government and the private sector – had, late in the boom, written glowing tributes to the Icelandic economy without disclosing significant conflicts of interest.

The film moves rapidly into a condensed but very effective history of the crisis, beginning with the deregulation of the Reagan administration from 1981 onwards.

While leading players from the banks, such as Lloyd Blankfein, and all of the senior government officials involved from Hank Paulson downwards refused to be interviewed, Ferguson manages to suggest collusion between government officials, regulators and bankers to deadly effect.

Watching the film at a private screening in London, hosted by the Financial Times’ US managing editor Gillian Tett, I found myself in a melée of investment bankers, journalists and academics, many of whom might easily have starred in the British version had there been one. Tett appears in the film, being one of the few journalists to identify and write about potential disaster in the derivatives markets stemming from the sub-prime sector.

She and other commentators in the film include Martin Wolf, Nouriel Roubini, Willem Buiter and Ken Rogoff.

Much of the appeal of this film lies in the editing.

The politicians, regulators and bankers are carefully lit to create an aura of power and vanity. One by one, Ferguson skewers them with their own words, and often with their hesitation or silence in the face of the polite but insistent questioning from the off-screen Damon. Ex-Fed governor Frederic Mishkin and former Bush economic adviser Glenn Hubbard come out particularly badly.

Ferguson also argues convincingly that nothing has changed, and that the seeds of a future, perhaps bigger, crisis are already being sown. To some extent, Ferguson’s polemic is a skilful exercise in being wise after the event. But you don’t need to subscribe to his thesis to enjoy one of the clearest, most compelling accounts yet of a crisis whose full consequences are still to be felt.

Inside Job (2010)
120 minutes

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