Charles Ferguson’s documentary Inside Job attempts to offer a consolidated explanation of the 2008 financial crisis. Since this is hardly an obscure subject, many of Ferguson’s insights will be old news, particularly for those who, say, listen to NPR or have seen the PBS Frontline Special “Inside the Meltdown.” No End in Sight, Ferguson’s previous documentary, was similarly premiered after most of its content was common knowledge, but it came out precisely as public opinion about the War in Iraq reached a point of no return. The 2008 financial crisis stirred public outrage even back in 2008. Without too many particularly new insights into the cause of the crisis, Inside Job will likely be less impactful than No End Left in Sight.
Literally by the numbers documentary filmmaking, Inside Job is divided into five distinct chapters. Beyond brief diversions in China and Finland, where Ferguson attempts to depict the global reach of the American market collapse, the bulk of the film is filled by a procession of talking heads, who work to either assign or deflect blame for the crash. The presence of many of the interviewees is a testament to Ferguson’s ability to get important figures to agree to speak on camera, but he has a disingenuous tendency to imply that anyone who refused to speak with him is guilty of ethical transgressions.
Where Ferguson’s documentary does seem to offer something new to the debate though, is in its fourth segment, entitled “Accountability.” Here, in a particularly vicious manner, Ferguson extends his conspiracy theory about the corrupted economics field back to its origins. Singling out business school professors at Harvard and Columbia Universities, Ferguson presents a series of damning circumstances that demonstrate that much of the professors’ income and scholarship has its roots in the corporate world. The suggestion that much of the economics discipline serves to lend bought credibility to corporate interests is damning, and the evidence that Ferguson presents is rather persuasive. The lack of disclosure of funds received in academic reports seems a definite conflict of interest. To see famed economists defend the blatant lack of transparency is shocking. If anything in Inside Job is likely to prompt real-world change, it is this segment.
Ultimately, Inside Job will not have much to offer those who follow financial news reports. Ferguson’s goal here seems not to create any sort of definitive historical record, but rather to create a palatable, two-hour distillation of a complicated and far-ranging systemic breakdown. Gripes that Ferguson doesn’t spend more time explaining the failure of our credit rating agencies or interviewing lower-level members of financial firms becomes more understandable in this context. At the end of the day, Inside Job finds something less than the smoking gun that it wants to, but when the picture it paints is so damning anyhow, who’s counting?