1. It has been only six years since “Fahrenheit 911″ came out, which is shockingly recent in the world of film and politics. It seems like decades ago. (“Watch this drive.”) To some of us, particularly us ardent admirers of “Roger & Me,” the film inspired more disappointment than the intended fury at the Bush administration. Moore had abandoned the almost Twain-esque just-a-guy-trying-to-help charm of that film and essentially made an 122-minute political ad directly mean to affect the upcoming election. (Whether he was right or not was beside the point.) But it was financially successful, the first documentary to reach the $100 million mark in domestic gross, and it opened up the market. Since then, we’ve been in an age of a documentary boom. (Great site The Documentary Blog has a top 25 docs of the decade that might not have been possible without “Fahrenheit 911.”) Even better, filmmakers like Alex Gibney, Werner Herzog, Steve James and Chris Smith have taken the freedom this boom has given them and made even-handed, smart and measured films that entrance us without preaching. It’s a documentary world now, real, fake (“Paranormal Activity”) and half-fake (“Catfish”).
2. Which brings us to “Inside Job,” the newest film from Charles Ferguson, whose “No End In Sight” was the saddest, most devastating film made about the Iraq war. That film worked because Ferguson didn’t need to make a polemic; the details and ill-fated planning of that war were so staggering that he barely even needed to move his camera. He stayed out of the way and let the story tell itself. So when we saw that Ferguson was aiming next at the financial crisis, we couldn’t wait: He was exactly the type of filmmaker to dispassionately vivisect the greed whores who hit the iceberg and then took all the lifeboats. (Moore would screw this up by trying to embarrass the receptionist and security guard at Goldman Sachs.) So it’s with considerable sadness that we report that the story gets the best of Ferguson. He still nails all the details, but he can’t keep his feelings out of it this time. He’s too mad. It’s difficult to blame him.
3. Ferguson is meticulous and impressively simple in laying out what exactly brought the U.S. and world economy to the bring of collapse in September 2008, and he’s accurately identified the villains. Anyone who saw “Frontline”‘s riveting “Inside The Meltdown” from a year ago, or read Michael Lewis’ “The Big Short,” will know all the major players and storylines, but the film does an excellent job of recapping without ever feeling repetitive. (A segment explaining bank deregulation, which started all this, is a precise and entertaining standout.) If you don’t understand what happened, the first two-thirds of “Inside Job” are an ideal introduction. But then Ferguson goes out looking for scalps.
4. It is understandable that Ferguson wants to wring the necks of guys like Alan Greenspan, or Larry Summers, or Hank Paulson, or any of other endless lists of names who hijacked the world economy in the name of their own gluttony or misguided, fanatical idealism. (Greenspan is hit particularly hard.) But attempting to play pin the tail on the donkey here, acting as if this crisis was caused by a certain number of evil men, and that if there would have been different people in charge this wouldn’t have happened, misses the point. This is a culture that fetishizes wealth, one that still does, even after the collapse. That these men would work for their own benefit rather than society’s is frustrating, but hardly unusual. Ferguson lets his desire for justice (vengeance, really) loosen his grip on the bigger picture: This is what America IS. Is he implying that these men — and they’re all men — are uniquely corrupt, and that other people in their place would have not done the same thing? This is not to excuse it: This is simply observing human nature. Ferguson wants them to marinate in their filth, and becomes a Moore-esque crusader rather than a documentarian. It’s an audience react-and-respond film, which is fine, as far as it is; a great documentary should move you, should spur you to action. But emotions get the best of Ferguson. He gets obsessed, for some reason, with Wall Street bankers’ propensity for drugs and prostitutes, as if that tells us anything about what happened to our economy. Ferguson takes great glee in black title cards that tell us which of the major figures refused to talk to him — spoiler alert: none of them talk to him — as if he were the lone journalist on earth, as if not returning his calls were somehow the ultimate indictment. It’s a Moore movie if there ever were one.
5. Look, this is a well-intention film that works as a procedural to What Got Us Here in as entertaining and clarifying a way as one could hope. But where “No End In Sight” looked upon disaster with sadness, “Inside Job” is such a crusade that you begin to lose trust in the narrator even when he’s telling the truth. At one point, he scores an interview with Glenn Hubbard, dean of the Columbia Business School and former economic adviser to the Bush Administration. Ferguson attempts to make the valid, if minor, point that many of the people who caused this problem are out teaching at our nation’s top universities while still receiving money from the major banks and investment firms. But because few others — at least the few others who Ferguson doesn’t revere as martyrs to the evil capitalists, the narrators of his morality tale — will talk to him, Ferguson goes after Hubbard, assailing him as a hypocrite and, essentially, turning him into one of Moore’s security guards. Sure, Hubbard has his ethical issues, and what Fergeron’s saying makes sense. But still: So? Is that what the point of this is? To hammer a professor who foolishly sat down to talk to you? Ferguson is so mad he’s punching at whatever’s in front of him. It’s understandable, but this is more polemic than documentary. By the time the last frame comes up, of the Statue of Liberty while narrator Matt Damon muses on about our “better selves,” you’ll want to go back and watch the “Frontline” documentary again. Or, better yet, “No End In Sight,” to remind what made us trust Ferguson in the first place.