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.


Fred said...

I'm glad you saved me the time and trouble of having to watch Inside Job. From the sounds of it, it may be too much to expect a feature documentary to be able to capture the scope and complexity of the financial meltdown going back 20+ years. And expecting Larry Summers to be concerned that you think he's an asshole or that he was embarrased by the makers of the film misses the point that he gets to keep every dollar he earned during the last 20+ years without fear of investigation or prosecution by the regulators, since he's too big to fail.

And how complex was the financial meltdown. I'll give you an example. Six months ago, I was in court on a white collar criminal defense case. The judge conferenced the case in his chambers with a group of Assistant DA's and criminal defense attorneys present. He asked the gathering if anyone knew what a "hedge fund" means, and I was the only one there who was able to explain the concept. Even then, what I said went over the heads of more than half the attorneys present. I'm just glad he didn't ask me to explain a "swap" cause then I'd have really been screwed.

I think Inside Job won the Oscar for much the same reason that Hearts and Minds and Harlan County, U.S.A. won the documentary Oscars back in the 70s: to assuage the Limousine Liberal guilt of the members of the Academy. They all want to look so current and act like they really give a shit about the common folk who get hurt in these situations, while wearing their 6 figure designer outfits and tuxes, before heading off to dine on expensive meals at post-Oscar parties sponsored by the same group of assholes who engineered the economic collapse of the nation.

I'm sure the quintessential film/documentary of the financial crisis exists; it just hasn't been made yet.

Greg said...

it may be too much to expect a feature documentary to be able to capture the scope and complexity of the financial meltdown going back 20+ years.

Yes, it really is. This doc could've done more had it adopted an American Experience historical documentary style where the history is covered step by step. The attack style is satisfying only in the immediate moment and that's it. Like you said, Larry Summers doesn't give a shit. Hell, I wonder if he's even aware of the documentary much less that he's fingered as a major player in the economic crisis. And if so, he still wouldn't care.

He asked the gathering if anyone knew what a "hedge fund" means, and I was the only one there who was able to explain the concept.

I went to the internet months ago for an understanding because I wasn't getting it from the media. The documentary is no better. It's dumbed down enough that you get the basic concept but I still reverted to the internet for a refresher because the movie's explanation didn't really jibe with what I had read. I think for most of this it helps to have someone actually explain it in detail rather than by analogy, which is the preferred method of the movie.

I think Inside Job won the Oscar for much the same reason that Hearts and Minds and Harlan County, U.S.A. won the documentary Oscars back in the 70s: to assuage the Limousine Liberal guilt of the members of the Academy.

That's the reason for at least 80% of all Oscar wins, although I find Harlan County, USA to be an excellent doc despite whatever reason it may have been awarded. As to the Academy's guilt complexes I still remember the jokes about Ghandi winning 8 Oscars, not the movie. Ostensibly it was the movie that won them but really they were using the Oscars to align themselves with the man and say, "See, we helped the untouchables too!"

With Inside Job I honestly assume almost no one in the Academy actually saw it and thus don't know how much blame in it is laid at the footsteps of Clinton's men as well as Bush's men. I figure they've schmoozed with Larry Summers at galas and not even known he's portrayed as one of the main culprits. A part of me finds that's funny and the other part finds it's immeasurably sad.

Fred said...

Greg, if we ever meet, I'll give a free lesson in finance and securities law. My way of saying thanks for keeping Cinema Styles one of my favorite blogs.

I agree with you about Harlan County, U.S.A., one of the best documentaries I ever saw. And the Oscars remain a bit of a Hollywood joke: if you want to win an Oscar, make a movie about illness, the Holocaust, minorities or the current Cause Celebre. Since the early 60s, it has remained true to form.

Jason Bellamy said...

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.

Hmm. Interesting. I suppose it might be a matter of what you mean by "illumination," but I would have said that's precisely what the film does well. Just saw in the comments that you didn't get much from the film's explanations, but the thing I remember from watching this was the rage I felt that Inside Job could so easily portray the major components of the meltdown and yet, in my own experience, no major media outlets made any attempt to do the same.

I enjoyed this doc quite a bit (I had no feeling about Damon one way or the other, deciding at the beginning that I wasn't going to think of him as anything more than a voice, and that might have helped), but you make a strong case for the appeal of the comparatively emotionally subdued No End in Sight. I suspect I'll continue to enjoy Ferguson if he retains this tone, but if he takes yet another step away from the measured tone of No End in Sight, I'll probably end up at the place you seem to be here.

Enjoyed reading the review!

Tony Dayoub said...

You know, I saw INSIDE JOB and Wiseman's BOXING GYM on the same day in a room full of NYC critics. Although BOXING GYM was my favorite doc of 2010, for its unobtrusive style. INSIDE JOB was my second favorite, mostly because it explained a situation to me in terms I could understand, which--I agree with you--the media never could. But I like your write-up because you've made me realize that the actual reason I liked INSIDE JOB so much is because it basically confirms what I knew already and--as you point out--"roasts" these arrogant co-conspirators in a way the law has so far been unable to. As far as filmmaking goes, it is a manipulative work in a way that Wiseman's admittedly smaller-scale work isn't. Nearly every other critic in the house that day was "in the tank" for this film even more than I was (presumably because they are New Yorkers and closest to the front line on this Wall Street-borne issue).

Thanks for this, Greg. It's not often that a review makes you reconsider your opinion of a film.

Greg said...

Fred, since you're a lawyer, if we ever meet, you're buying! And I look forward to discussing finance with you, it's something I've always enjoyed. My profession is working with accounts and money. I handle account reconciliation for the National Archives retail operations. It runs in the family. My dad got his masters in economics and did the accounting for the South Carolina State Port Authority.

I look forward to talking money and movies with you one of these days.

Greg said...

Jason, like I said, I saw merit in the film but the tone distracted me. I prefer the subdued historical approach but I understand Ferguson wanting to get some roasting in of these smug assholes and I greatly appreciate the time and trouble he took to go back to the nineties and give a large overview. But, for me, the explanations (and maybe this is an indictment of me) came up short. I guess it's a case of different viewers just seeing different things, which happens. This doc just didn't do much for me.

Of course, your review may be more illuminating to me than the movie so the case is far from closed.

Greg said...

Tony, wow, thanks! That's great to hear. I give the documentary full credit for making the attempt because, honestly, nobody in the media has. I mean, seriously, they haven't. Half the people think Obama did it, the other half think Bush did it and no one goes back far enough to the nineties to even tap that keg. It's an embarrassment and the truth is all of the last three presidents have been complacent while members of their administrations pull strings and look the other way while crooked schemes are carried out and crooked laws, stacked against the average person, are passed.

Tony Dayoub said...

You're right, nobody in the media has. But your statement that " one goes back far enough to the nineties to even tap that keg..." makes me realize something. This goes back even further than that. Much of this is a case of "chickens coming home to roost" after the Reagan era policy of deregulation. This is when the country's economic disparity really began to grow unchecked, IMHO.

Greg said...

Tony, they do briefly cover the deregulation of the eighties as kind of foreshadowing of the nineties. It has been a long road with a lot of complicity to go around. I think the best go at this would be a three part series that could run on PBS and cover each decade (80s, 90s, 00s) separately for two hours giving a lot more insight as well as coverage.

I think Fred's right that it's just too much to cover in a feature documentary.

Marilyn said...

Greg - As you know, I see a lot of documentaries and fearlessly write them up as I see fit. I'm happy to say that aside from one gentleman who wished to enlighten me about the International Zionist Conspiracy on my review of The Rape of Europa, nobody has yet given me a hard time, though that's probably because nobody has seen or cares about the films, any my blog traffic is hardly large enough to contain a critical mass of assholes.

I haven't watched any of the financial documentaries because I find finance kind of boring and I basically already know how our economy has been massacred by the forces of greed and ambition. When I worked for a finance magazine during the Clinton Administration, I remember one of my authors talking to me about a derivatives scheme that bankrupted Orange County, CA, back in 1994. She called it the "Unabomber of public finance." Does anyone remember this bankruptcy story today?

Onto the larger idea you present of POV of the documentarian. Many documentaries exist because of the passion of their creators, who definitely have an opinion on what they are covering. Then you have Errol Morris, who is journalistic to a fault - presenting one side of an argument and leaving it uncommented upon or unbalanced with opposing or expanded information that really makes an impression (showing a document on screen that says it's OK to torture people, is not the same as having a person tell you that). I, too, prefer a 360-degree view of an issue, and to the extent that a documentary succeeds in that, perhaps even while favoring a certain viewpoint, is the extent to which it is a better documentary than one that does not.

Greg said...

Documentaries are something I'm fairly forgiving of when I watch ones about favorite social activists/causes because in those cases it's usually all about the passion with very little cinematic ambition. With something like this, it seems more like a public service and I suppose I want more coverage than a feature documentary can give me. I admit, it's probably unfair to expect too much more from something like this but on a subject this important I'm not willing to pull many punches.

I wish I had the convictions you do writing about documentaries. I just don't want to wade too deeply into those waters even though neither of is at a level of readership where it would be that big of a deal. Still, I'm thankful you do because I've learned of a lot of docs I wouldn't have known about otherwise.

Speaking of which, I still haven't been able to see that doc on Cinerama because it's only available as a part of the special collector's edition of How the West Was Won and I have no intention of buying that just to see the doc. I wish it was available elsewhere.

Fred said...

When I worked for a finance magazine during the Clinton Administration, I remember one of my authors talking to me about a derivatives scheme that bankrupted Orange County, CA, back in 1994. She called it the "Unabomber of public finance." Does anyone remember this bankruptcy story today?

Marilyn, you hit the nail on the head. I remember when this happened b/c the husband of an attorney I was working with was doing derivatives at one of the investment banks here in NYC when that happened. As for it being the "unabomber", I would actually say it was more like how the Spanish Civil War was a full dress rehearsel for World War II. None of the leasons from the Orange County debacle were learned, and instead the same scheme/scam was foisted upon the American public with the mortgage backed mess that was the immediate cause of the meltdown in 2007 (the credit lockup of February 2007 was the explosion of the debacle with the mess that came to a head in September 2008 with AIG, Lehman Bros. and "Too Big To Fail"/TARP the nation taking note of it).

I agree with Greg that a PBS-style profile is warranted. I remember reading a great book in college called the Long Fuse which took the same view of the start of WWI going all the way back to the Franco-Prussian War of 1871 to show the inevitability of the Great War. The same should be done with the Financial Meltdown, going all the way back to the Community Reinvestment Act under Carter, deregulation under Reagan, the defeat of George HW Bush as the result of a standard cyclical
recession in 1992, Orange County in 1994, Gramm-Leach-Bliley and the repeal of Glass Steagle, the George W Bush tax cuts, etc.

What I think such a profile would show is that most politicians learned from the defeat of Papa Bush was that it was bad to be up for re-election at the time of a cyclical downturn (if you recall, Papa Bush was hugely popular going into the 1992 campaign season as a result of the "victory" in Gulf War I). As a result, most politicians of both major parties began doing anything and everything in their power to stave off a cyclical recession, leading to bubble economies in tech stocks, municipal bonds, mortgage backed securities and real estate, aided by ridiculously low interest rates courtesy of Alan Greenspan. It will also show how BOTH parties conspired with Wall Street to make this happen, at the expense of the average American citizen. As a result, it also made it easy for each politician to point with both hands and say "Not me; him!" The only problems I have are (1) will most Americans be too busy watching American Idol to pay attention to this?, (2) will history be written by the victors like it usually is? and (3) will this stop the next set of politicians and Wall Streeters from makig this happen again?

Greg said...

the defeat of George HW Bush as the result of a standard cyclical recession in 1992

That part of your comment jumped out at me. The recession was barely a blip and it cost him the election. After the seventies, any economic downturn is seen as the gateway to the next catastrophe, and that's not always the case.

By the way, just for everyone to know, Cinema Styles is too big to fail. That's why I will absorb other blogs to prop me up. Sorry other blogs.

The Kid In The Front Row said...

I haven't seen it yet, but am interested to check it out.

Philippines Virtual Assistants said...

The inside job is an effort rewarded. Thanks for sharing it to everybody, you saved me a lot of time.