LITTLE ROCK — Charles Ferguson’s Inside Job is a sober, intelligent film that explores and explains, in detail, the underlying causes of the 2008 global financial meltdown. It is a movie that will give you a glimpse at the sort of psychology - the hubris and irresponsibility - of the reckless, blindly ambitious people who lost billions of other people’s money while somehow retaining their freedom, personal fortunes and in some cases even the confidence of presidents.
Ferguson, an academic and software developer whose first film, 2007’s Oscar-nominated No End in Sight, was a similarly clear-eyed look at the war in Iraq, spares no party or president in its investigation of the effect of decades of deregulation on the finance industry.While it can be argued that it is a partisan documentary, Ferguson holds every American administration since Ronald Reagan’s culpable in the crash, as well as the economists who provided theoretical cover and the regulators who faced no consequences for looking the other way.
After more than 30 years without a financial crisis, Ferguson explains, things began to change in 1981 when a group philosophically opposed to regulation - including Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan - gained power. Even as the White House and Congress changed hands, deregulation remained in vogue, and the game became rigged in favor of financial institutions that could indemnify against losses through the magic of increasingly complex instruments called “derivatives.”
The film starts not in the canyons of Wall Street but nearly 3,000 miles to thenortheast, in Iceland, a small but wealthy country with a population (317,600) about half that of the Little Rock Metropolitan Statistical Area. After the country’s three banks werederegulated, they quickly grew into global giants - with losses that dwarfed the country’s gross domestic product.
The Icelandic crash, Ferguson implies, is a harbinger of what awaits the U.S. economy.
While Ferguson’s analysis is cogent (and too detailed to go into here), his real strength as a filmmaker is that he knows the world he’s investigating and has access to the sort of behind-the-scenes powerbrokers who rarely sit before the cameras. He’s part of their world. He’s not a flashy filmmaker, but he’s a dogged interviewer and fearless journalist who has the rarer-than-you-might-expect ability to ask the impolite but necessary questions and the intellectual ballast to challenge evasive answers.
Ferguson so flusters Glenn Hubbard, the sleek dean of the Columbia University business school, that he snaps at the filmmaker: “You have three more minutes. Give it your best shot.”
Ferguson does, and his best shot is devastating. Inside Job will make you angry. More importantly, it will make you smarter.