10.14.10

Inside Job: Hard Lessons Through Pretty Pictures

A new documentary about Wall Street and the financial meltdown succeeds in making a dry topic into a visually stunning thriller. Randall Lane, author of The Zeroes, on the groundbreaking, bridge-burning film.

One subject featured in Inside Job, director Charles Ferguson's buzzy new Wall Street documentary, recently relayed a telling story to me over lunch: When Ferguson came to film in his apartment, he brought a crew of about fifteen. They filmed him for more than three hours. When they risked getting cut short by his apartment building's freight elevator hours, Ferguson stuck a stack of hundreds in the super's hand. And then when the movie, which rolls out nationwide today, was finally finished, said expert was featured for all of… eight seconds.

But those expensive—and perfect—eight seconds explain why Inside Job is the best movie about Wall Street since, well, Wall Street (the original, not the solidly mediocre Money Never Sleeps). And maybe the most important piece of work, in any medium, about the financial  meltdown.

Ferguson spent as much as necessary to tell the story of crisis visually. He takes us on IMAX-worthy helicopter rides across the mossy hills of Iceland and the financial canyons of Manhattan (the cinematography was similar to Oliver Stone's skyline-obsessed visuals in the Wall Street sequel, as if the directors were dueling in adjacent editing rooms). Each of the three or so dozen interviews is composed and lit like a Vanity Fair portrait. Matt Damon provides the voice-over. ( Ferguson estimates that Inside Job cost less than $2 million to produce—if true, someone should give this guy a studio to run.)

"It was surprisingly beautifully filmed," acid-tongued hedge-fund titan Bill Ackman said immediately after its premiere at the New York Film Festival this month. "Something you don't think of with a financial film."

The first words about the film that came to rock-star economist Nouriel Roubini's mind when I asked him were: "visually stunning."

More than making it pretty, this attention to aesthetics makes Inside Job effective. Most people still can't explain why the country's economy went into the toilet, other than that Wall Street's denizens are a bunch of greedy jackasses. Ferguson has coated the aspirin, his financial tutorial, with applesauce. Even the charts were gorgeous: the PowerPoint as art. Whether Ferguson consciously wanted to make something slick from something abstract, or merely holds his movies to high standards (his first documentary, about Iraq, was the Oscar-nominated No End in Sight), the result is the same: He's taken the headache-inducing story of the financial meltdown and made it accessible.

More than making it pretty, this attention to aesthetics makes Inside Job effective.

I understand the power of slicking up the abstract world of high finance, and I also recently tried to explain the financial meltdown by telling a story. But I was limited both times by the constraints of still pictures and words. Inside Job, a movie intended to reveal the true power of Wall Street, accidentally uses Wall Street to reveal the true power of movies.

The key is Ferguson's ability to focus a narrative. Jumpy and wiry, he has a slight reputation as a tyrant—in introducing the film at the Film Festival to a fairly posh crowd, he pre-emptively apologized to his team for the tears he caused—but in watching the results, the control freak in him seems justified.

Compare Inside Job with Capitalism, Michael Moore's entertaining polemic on the broader sins of laissez-faire economics. Moore's was statement first, history second. Ferguson reverses those emphases—focusing solely on this historic meltdown, the who/what/where/why/how. And he does so accurately, with precision, the way a prosecutor lays out a case he's sure he's going to win. He filets the insiders who choose not to take the stand (Larry Summers, Hank Paulson) and those fools who did go on camera (Frederick Mishkin, Glenn Hubbard) get fully eviscerated.

Ferguson can throw punches backed by the fact that he has what Wall Street calls "fuck you money." As in, the freedom that comes with enough money squirreled away never to need to work again. No need to kiss anyone's ass, worry about burned bridges or creating enemies.

"I don't' give a shit," said Ferguson, who made a tech fortune in the 1990s, when asked at the Film Festival about his tough questioning. "If I needed to challenge them, I challenged them." He then went on to say that he thinks 300 to 400 Wall Street honchos belong in prison.

Ferguson stretches at times, particularly in delving into the revolving door between Wall Street and academia, and the influence of prostitution. Then again, the people naïve enough to sit down with him were professors (including Columbia's Mishkin and Hubbard), and he also had a big-shot madam on camera. In other words, he worked with the material he had. That's not a sin, but rather the reality of content creation.

So is the sweeping documentary the new hot format? I doubt it. But if sexing up abstract topics is necessary to create informed citizenry, I'm all for it.

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Randall Lane is editor at large at The Daily Beast. The former editor in chief of Trader Monthly, Dealmaker and P.O.V. magazines, and the former Washington bureau chief of Forbes, he is the author of The Zeroes: My Misadventures in the Decade Wall Street Went Insane.