Watching Wall Street squirm

A devastating documentary unravels the causes of the 2008 financial meltdown

Watching Wall Street squirm

U.S. Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner at a hearing in Washington in 2009 | Joshua Roberts/Bloomberg News/Getty Images

The surging popularity of documentaries in recent years can be personified by two ungainly, cartoon-like personalities: Michael Moore and the emperor penguin. Moore has directed four of the 10 top-grossing documentaries during the past decade, including Farenheit 9/11, which holds the No. 1 position. Right behind it, March of the Penguins leads a host of nature and environmental films that occupy another five spots. This year has produced a remarkable crop of hard-hitting documentaries, films about big issues designed to sound an alarm and make us angry. But they have a more sobering style; they’re not personality-driven. There’s no Moore or Bill Maher or Al Gore performing for the camera as a hectoring tour guide. These are movies that pummel us with pure fact.

Lucy Walker’s Countdown to Zero marshals indisputable data to show that the world is closer to the brink of nuclear catastrophe than at any time since the Cold War. With Waiting for “Superman”, David Guggenheim, the director of An Inconvenient Truth, charts the dire crisis of America’s school system. And now, in a devastating documentary called Inside Job, Charles Ferguson unravels the causes of the 2008 financial meltdown, laying blame with the tenacity of a criminal prosecutor.

Unlike Moore, who ridiculed terms like “derivatives” and “credit default swaps” as baffling mumbo-jumbo in Capitalism: A Love Story, Ferguson actually tries to explain this stuff. If Moore is the blue-collar class clown, a loud-mouthed Little Tramp, Ferguson is the best teacher you never had—a political-science scholar, author and tech guru. After tackling the Iraq war in his first film, the Oscar-nominated No End In Sight (2007), he now sets out to prove that the world economic crisis was no accident, but the entirely avoidable result of unpunished criminal behaviour by a rogue financial industry drunk on deregulation. Inside Job’s riveting investigation may be too complex, comprehensive—and cool-headed—to rival Moore’s films at the box-office. But it’s essential viewing.

Like Walker and Guggenheim, Ferguson does not appear onscreen. We just hear his voice pop up in some of his interviews, as he nails his culprits to the wall and watches them squirm. Narrator Matt Damon does most of the talking, but he too stays off camera, delivering a motherlode of evidence in a tone of icy neutrality.
Inside Job shows how a compact, risk-averse U.S. financial industry ended four decades of stability with wild growth in the deregulated ’80s, consolidating into a few massive firms that binged on debt and took the economy down. We see how banks, insurance companies and rating agencies colluded to jack up revenues by off-loading risk and gambling on the failure of the triple-A-rated junk they were selling. But the film’s most damning portrait is of America’s financial brains trust—the cabal of federal treasury secretaries, Federal Reserve Board chairmen and academic advisers who worked hand-in-glove with the companies they let run rampant.

Ferguson conducts interviews with 42 subjects, ranging from the banks’ top lobbyist to a therapist who treats Wall Street executives addicted to cocaine and hookers. The chief villains in his scenario—federal bigwigs like Larry Summers, Henry Paulson, Ben Bernanke and Timothy Geithner—refused to talk. But Ferguson corners some key academic apologists for the financial sector. In the juiciest scene, he skewers Glenn Hubbard, dean of Columbia’s business school and former chief economic adviser for president George W. Bush. Comparing him to a medical researcher taking money from a drug company, he asks if he saw no conflict of interest in promoting derivatives and deregulation while earning large sums from the companies that benefited from his opinions. You can practically see the steam coming out of Hubbard’s ears. “This isn’t a deposition,” he snaps. “I was polite enough to give you time. You have three more minutes. Give it your best shot.” He does. It’s a Michael Moore gotcha moment, but there’s no camera on the director—just the subject, who needs no help in hanging himself.

Looking for more?

Get the Best of Maclean's sent straight to your inbox. Sign up for news, commentary and analysis.