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Inside Job

dir: Charles Ferguson
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With documentaries, sometime it’s the content, far more so than the quality of how it’s put together, that’s the defining element deciding whether it works or not. Sure, I am the first person in human history to point out that documentaries tend to veer between polemical and propagandistic, so it’s the most obvious thing to point out ever, but it’s far more true of this ‘genre’ than any of the others. There’s usually far less revelation, and far more letters-to-the-editor aggravation.

Inside Job seeks to illustrate for us what went on and wrong in the lead up to that recent minor economic kerfuffle you might have heard about or lost your job over, charmingly referred to as the Global Financial Crisis. The most important word in that phrase is not the first one, anti-globalisation crusaders, or the last one, catastrophists and doomsayers. It’s the middle one, because, as Matt Damon’s soothing and scolding voiceover articulates for our benefit, it was the goblins of high finance, abetted by cowardly governments that were the ones that did the dirty.

Lots of talking heads ensue, and these people fall into two distinct groups: people champing at the bit to say “Told you so” because they said it was going to happen before it happened, and a couple of people in the other camp denying that anything was wrong even as the sky was falling while they and their compatriots profited from the catastrophe. A long list of a third phantom group exists in the abstract, serious players on the financial sector and government sides, who declined to be interviewed for very good reasons. The brief snippets of these other people talking and lying through their fucking teeth in other interviews or before Congress is enough, is more than enough to engender outrage.

Yes, a driving force of documentaries is to get people to feel outraged. But I don’t want outrage. I crave understanding. I want to grasp how something complicated happened, especially if it’s something that has impacted adversely on millions of lives.

As such, using Damon talking and PowerPoint presentations, the doco often has moments of stark clarity, explaining how the snowball kicked off. I’m not going to pretend that, having now watched the doco, or researched it away from the computer, or being a super-genius type who can’t tie his own shoelaces, that I now have a perfect understanding of what happened, but I have a somewhat better grasp of what happened before I watched the doco, so it must have gotten something right.

If you want something of that understanding, then you could presumably watch this doco too. Of course, there are always going to be better sources and better delivery systems, because this flick spends a lot of time on crap only tangentially related to the issue at hand.

Going back to ‘outrage’ as a driving force, there are way too many lazy scenes where the interviewer asks a loaded question to one of the people who should have known better, and gets no response, or cuts the response because it’s not to their liking, which exist only to have the squirrely question heard. As interesting as the director might have thought having himself heard to ask “So how much of a whore is your mother?” would be, it’s not interesting if it elicits no response. And there are way too many moments like that sprinkled throughout the film.

That’s not interviewing, that’s not documenting anything, that’s just big-noting oneself and one’s own outrage.

The strangest exchange for my money, which makes no sense to me as to why it wasn’t edited out, involves the section of the flick devoted to the collapse of some of the bigger finance services firms like Lehman Brothers and Bear Sterns. The point of contention at this time in the flick involves the manner in which the credit ratings (as in, a classification or scoring meant to give investors confidence as to the security of their prospective investing) for these firms was AAA (as in, as good as it gets) days before they went bankrupt. The interviewer, presumably the director, asks the French finance minister Christine Lagarde when she knew one of these firms was about to go under.

She casually responds that she didn’t know, like most of the rest of the world apart from the executives at the shonky firm, until after it happened.

Awkward pause follows, the interviewer says, “Uh, wow”, then there’s a bit more time elapsing of the French Finance Minister wondering why this foolish chap thought she would have been in the loop with the arseholes at Bear Stearns or Lehman Brothers. Other stuff she clearly knew about, and talks about spending time with a clearly delusional Hank Paulson, previously of Goldman Sachs, and later Treasury Secretary responsible for much of the crap that followed, and yet the interviewer devoted precious minutes to matters she could only have known if she was not only French but a psychic as well.

There are plenty of these awkward and unrevealing moments throughout the 100 minute or so running time, but I guess they’re outweighed by the stuff they get right. The overall explanation of what happened, and how it happened, does stick to a certain extent. I’m not going to pretend that I fully understand it, but I do at least think I understand what the various elements of this tragedy were, what and who enabled them further, and how unlikely it is that the system will ever change.

Sure, I knew that there were a lot of mortgages, but I didn’t really know how a lot of ‘bad’ mortgages going bad resulted in a loss of trillions of dollars from global markets.

The film clearly and calmly shows how it all happened. It points to the deregulation of the financial services sector, the increasing of leveraging limits (how far banks and other lenders could overextend themselves), the rolling up of crappy mortgages into asset-backed securities called collateralised debt obligations (CDOs) that people could invest in because they looked like worthwhile investments despite being utter crap, the collusion with the ratings agencies (that would give these worthless CDOs top ratings), the taking out of insurance against these CDOs going bad by the big finance firms through credit default swaps, the further ‘betting against” on these CDOs by the very firms telling their clients to buy CDOs, and the eventual crumbling of the whole house of cards.
Wait, did I say that it all makes clear sense, because now I’ve watched this flick? Eh, probably not. It does simplify something fairly complex in a cogent, digestible way. Those sections of the flick were very informative to me, and, concentrating closely, I started to get a sense of the bigger picture, and how interconnected lines of greed allowed the system to profit, or at least members of that system, profit from its own collapse.

Less informative are the sections pointing to the excesses of the high-ups and executives at these places when everything was still going great. We’re meant to seethe and hiss at the images of conspicuous and dictator-like wealth, but they left me cold. Psychoanalysing the psyches of the people involved from such a remove (by talking to the hideous women who ran hookers to them) or by asking how many G5 private jets they owned means nothing to me.

Of far more meaning to me is the overall structure of the doco’s complaint that the entire system is so rigged and compromised. The interconnections of the financial ‘system of the world’ is so interconnected and corrupt, and so clearly distant from the ‘invisible hand’ that the most ideologically blind Greenspans and Paulsons and Geithners preach about as justification for not re-regulating the finance sector, that it makes the whole concept that we live in democracies an absolute sham. Considering the breathtaking way this fiasco rolled out, and the millions upon millions of people impacted by it who were never even directly involved in a single one of these mortgages or transactions, who never had a fucking choice, how can we claim to have agency or self-determination? If a whore-fucking, cocaine-snorting Goldman Sachs executive can destroy my superannuation fund or make insolvent the bank holding my life savings, and make a profit from it, then how is this any different from feudal times, when a peasant’s life or death was at the whim of a monarch and his or her vassals.

Not that this actually happened to me, of course, but surely I can see, even if this doco hadn’t made it even clearer, that they (the ubiquitous ‘They’, being the people with actual power and wealth beyond reckoning) have developed a system of gambling whereby you don’t even get to choose whether you play or not, and the only guarantee is loss, and they make out like bandits no matter the outcome, every time. And people caught up in arguing ideological left/right bullshit are doing exactly what these shmucks want, because it keeps the sheep distracted from what’s really going on.

Okay, so now I’m choking on my own rage. It doesn’t make this a great documentary, even if it won an Academy Award. But the subject is such a horrible one, and it captured much of what makes it so horrible. If you’re subject to high-blood pressure I recommend giving this one a miss, but if you want an inkling as to how fucked the whole system is, and how no-one is ever going to change it, feel free to anger/depress yourself by watching Inside Job.

7 times it’s a shameful, shameful business out of 10

“As far as whether something is a weak security or going bad, we are selling securities all the time that are weak or we in the market don’t like.” – Goldman Sachs CEO Lloyd Blankfein, used car salesman in his spare time – Inside Job