Thursday, April 28, 2011

Outsourcing Illumination:
2010 Oscar Winner, Inside Job


I watch a lot of documentaries in my free time though I rarely write them up here. There's a reason for that. Most of the documentaries I watch are political or activist in nature and involve a subject for which I have a certain level of conviction. Most are about people I believe in but which many others (uninformed, in my opinion) might find to be cranks or kooks. Well, to each his own but it's my site and I don't want to hear any crap about someone I think has dedicated their life and work to bettering the world. I really don't. I mean, if you have a problem with someone who spent the better part of 40 or 50 years working to make the world safer or fighting for justice but they upset your political platform and thus you don't like them then, really, fuck you, what have you done?

See what happened there? I got hostile and we weren't even talking about one of those documentaries which is precisely why I don't talk about those documentaries. Well, outside of with my wife, I mean. When I do write about a documentary it's generally because it has a decided mission but a politically neutral stance. Like my review of Countdown to Zero. I didn't like it and gave it a fairly bad review. Politically, the movie goes right down the middle, not blaming or indicting either side, simply laying out the case for better protection against nuclear terrorism. In this mission, I believe it fails. Now, normally, here at Cinema Styles, I avoid bad reviews. I like to focus on promoting music and films that are worthwhile and of which I think more people should be aware. I'll probably never review an album I don't like and rarely ever a movie I don't like. For the most part, I'm not here to protect you from seeing bad movies but to share with you what I think are the good ones.

Sometimes, however, I'm not comfortable keeping quiet, as with Countdown to Zero which, I felt, fed misinformation to the viewers in an effort to unnecessarily frighten them and was disappointed because it is such an important topic and was dismayed that it got such slipshod treatment. About a week after watching it, I chose another documentary to watch, one I felt would bring my documentary experience back to form. I chose the Oscar winning Inside Job, about the fiscal crisis of 2008, directed by Charles Ferguson who made the excellent No End in Sight in 2007 about the disastrous post-war non-plan with Iraq. No End in Sight was replete with interviews from inside and outside the White House and gave an illuminating look at what happened. I was hoping for the same with Inside Job but unfortunately, didn't get it.

Still, there are similarities to the balanced nature of No End in Sight. For instance, it lays blame for the financial debacle equally at the feet of the Clinton and Bush administrations. It does a good job of stating that policies enacted under Clinton, furthered by Bush and exploited by Wall Street helped sink the economy in 2008. And it goes even further towards being fair and balanced. At the end, after seeing 90 minutes of crooked cabinet members under Clinton and Bush and dozens of disreputable money brokers, all responsible for the debacle, we get a kind of "where are they now" montage in which practically every goddamn one of them is serving in the Obama administration! What was it Pete Townsend said? "Meet the new boss, same as the old boss."

So this all sounds good, right? Wrong. It's not good and there's a reason it's not good. Because unlike Ferguson's earlier effort, it's not illuminating, it's incriminating. Ferguson's style of documentary filmmaking apparently underwent a fundamental shift from No End in Sight to Inside Job and the shift was from using information and knowledgeable sources to clarify a situation, as in No End in Sight, to using a only few knowledgeable folks while mainly focusing on attacking the bad guys "60 Minutes"-style and offering a large amount of commentary in the narrator's script. The narrator is Matt Damon and, I don't know why, this somehow makes it worse. I don't say that because I dislike Matt Damon but because he delivers the narration like a sage passing judgment rather than a neutral, informative voice.

To make matters worse, the concepts at play are not easily understood by any measure and while the documentary throws in an analogy here and an animated 1-2-3 diagram there, it consistently backs away from clarification to go on the attack.

To be clear, I have no problem with attack journalism. At its best it exposes frauds and shames con artists but a documentary attempting to put the complex pieces of a decades long downslide into criminal financial behavior on the largest scale imaginable isn't the place for it. What the people need is clarification, not "Ha! Take that, shithead!" when Ferguson says, "Are you serious? Did you just say that? I have information right here that proves..." etc. And he does! Don't get me wrong, he does have the information and he does throw it into the faces of these men of very questionable moral standing. But so what?! What the viewer walks away with from the documentary is the misinformed belief that this crook or that crook just got roasted and was, thus, somehow punished, but we still don't quite understand any of the actual details. Well, except that Larry Summers is King Asshole. I'll give that to Ferguson. That much is clear. Summers = King Asshole.

No End in Sight didn't have the attack moments. No End in Sight had Richard Armitage and Robert Hutchings and analysts and directors and soldiers, all under the Bush administration speaking openly and honestly about what went wrong. It was, in the best tradition of documentary filmmaking, illuminating. It took the people directly involved and let them tell the story without vitriol.

But a lot happened in the documentary world between 2007 and 2010. A personal, more polemical style came into vogue, and Ferguson seemed to think that was the best way to do his next effort. To be sure, he's not doing a Michael Moore impersonation (thank everything that is good in the universe for that) but, this time, flash and fireworks dominate over substance and clarity.

Inside Job isn't without merit but it fails at its core task of providing illumination into the events, circumstances and financial convictions that led us down the road to disaster. It's entertaining enough, what with it's "Gotcha" moments and book-cooking revelations, but I'm not looking for cheap revenge entertainment, I'm looking for a serious reflection upon a worldwide crisis. The information's there but the style works against it. It comes off as a gussied up version of an old Mike Wallace interview on "60 Minutes" and when the final shot of the Statue of Liberty blazes across the screen while Matt Damon tells us "some things are worth fighting for" you can't help but feel Andy Rooney should've narrated the whole thing all along.