Cinema yet to capture heart of financial crisis

October 8, 2010

By Rob Cox and Richard Beales

Crises have historically spawned great cinema. Wars brought “Apocalypse Now” and “The Bridge on the River Kwai,” for instance, and high-profile crime brought “The Godfather.” Business and economics have played their part. Without the Great Depression there would be no “It’s a Wonderful Life.” But the movies, fictional or not, have yet to capture the heart of the financial panic of 2008.

In the documentary department, Charles Ferguson’s “Inside Job,” which opens in New York on Friday, comes closest yet. Narrated by Matt Damon, it pulls together many threads for understanding what went wrong and why. But it overreaches for polemical barbs, thereby undermining its credibility. At least it’s more effective than “Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps” — Oliver Stone’s sequel to the 1987 classic that introduced Gordon Gekko to the world — which opened in the UK this week.

Ferguson successfully outlines in simple, but not simplistic, terms the building blocks for financial destruction. The Internet is already awash with smart and entertaining descriptions of how, for example, a lowly mortgage wends its way through the digestive tract of Wall Street and ends up in an investor’s portfolio. Ferguson has curated these tutorials and added slick production and incisive comments from intelligent people.

He breaks newer ground in his sharp indictment of the academic establishment for its complicity in the dismantling of the financial system’s safeguards. Ferguson hints at the institutional failure of prestigious schools, including Columbia Business School, to prepare Wall Street’s future leaders not just academically and practically, but ethically as well. This part of “Inside Job” is the film’s strongest.

Less credible is a segment implying moral turpitude played an as yet unexposed role in the financial industry’s failings. Ferguson even suggests regulators and prosecutors subpoena hookers for information on Wall Street’s evil deeds as a way of reaching a better understanding of the bust.

Meanwhile, director Stone had a chance to apply the simplifying force of screen fiction to the recent crisis with the return of Michael Douglas as Gekko. Yet although “Money Never Sleeps” hits a few strong notes — the replacement of common sense with fancy mathematics as the credit bubble inflated, for instance, and the denial shown by many at the center of things as it burst — any meaningful message gets lost.

Gekko’s oft-misquoted “Greed is good” maxim in the original “Wall Street” was taken to heart by a generation of business school grads, less cynically than Stone may have intended. But in the 2010 iteration, the director misses his chance to give the next bunch a different motto. Douglas’ character stays greedy as the world collapses, but in the end isn’t quite allowed to keep it up. Gekko is the only compelling character in the movie, but his journey seems inconclusive. It doesn’t help that Gekko’s daughter and would-be son-in-law, portrayed by Carey Mulligan and Shia LeBeouf, are unconvincing, or that the film is too long and laced with gimmicky product placement.

Stone may have wrapped too early, as well, because it’s now clear that bailouts helped get banks back on their feet and then some. The highly-paid survivors often don’t seem to appreciate that they didn’t save themselves; some seem to find even justified criticism of their industry’s role in the bust an excuse for self-pity. Stone might have found a stronger message in that.

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