It’s telling that Charles Ferguson’s Oscar-winning documentary Inside Job hits UK screens in a week when no less a figure than the head of the Bank Of England has made it clear that the blame for our financial woes should be placed squarely on the shoulders of the banks. Telling, and in some ways heartening, although the conclusion Ferguson reaches in his film isn’t at all comforting.
Like a financial version of An Inconvenient Truth, or a less schmaltzy Michael Moore, Inside Job makes no attempt to be objective. It’s a film that has no interest in painting the leading monetary figures behind the 2008 bust as anything but ogres or incompetents. Ordinarily, I’d be bothered about the fact that so many of the key players declined to be interviewed. But in these arena that doesn’t really matter. It’s the numbers that count, and Ferguson does a good job of showing how the venality of the banking sector tried and failed to skew those numbers in the interest of quick and massive profit.
It’s a film that demands your full attention. One point that the bankers who are seen in Congress sessions make time and again is that the situation is and remains way too complex for we mere mortals to understand. Ferguson uses graphics and a measured, careful narration from Matt Damon to ensure that we can.
We are taken though a history of financial deregulation since the Reagan era that led to investment banks packaging loans that were designed to fail, and betting that they would in the quest for spiralling short term profits and bonuses. It is complicated, I’ll admit. I’m a complete doofus when it comes to money, and I found myself squinting more than once at the screen to make sure I got it. But it’s worth the effort.
The end picture is clear. The banking industry in the US (and although it’s not mentioned, I realised there was a direct correlation to the UK bailouts of Lloyds and Northern Rock) has systematically engineered a structure in which it can operate without regulation or any real restraint, and with the clear understanding that they will be bailed out by government funds if they should screw up.
The failure to appear by most of the big noises in this perfect storm begins to look less like a flaw, and more like an admission of guilt. It’s a dirty journalistic trick, to be sure, and Ferguson doesn’t come across as a sympathetic interviewer. But the silence at the heart of the film speaks volumes, and you get the feeling that these guys very definitely have something to hide. Something that Ferguson’s simple, clear graphs and extensive research winkle out with mathematical precision.
In short, no-one in this story gets away clean. When the rot even extends to the compromised state of the educators at Harvard and the Columbia Business School (who, while they should have taken the Fifth that their smarter colleagues invoked, also provide some wonderfully squirm-inducing moments) you have to wonder if there’s anyone you can trust with your money anymore.
Inside Job is a brutal indictment of an awful situation that has been allowed to fester for years. Sadly, as Ferguson points out, not only are the banks in question unlikely to be punished for their misdeeds, many of the key players are still in power, and in many cases in central roles that will enable them to dictate US and hence world financial policy under the Obama administration. It’s not an easy or fun watch, but I think it’s essential, and left me wanting to know more. There’s a lot of cant and waffle about the state we’re in, and we need more work like Ferguson’s to at least begin to answer the unasked questions.
I wonder if George Osborne’s seen it.