Inside Job

By Felix Salmon
October 5, 2010

One of my dreams in life has long been to have the opportunity to sit down opposite Larry Summers or Bob Rubin, with video cameras rolling, and ask one of the key players in the financial crisis some tough on-the-record questions about the degree to which he’s responsible for it. This is the kind of interview which can only be done on video, which captures evasions and non-answers and general oily shiftiness in a way that no print journalist ever could.

That’s no longer a dream of mine. Instead, I have a new dream: that Charles Ferguson conduct exactly that interview.

Ferguson is the director of Inside Job, the new documentary about the financial crisis which is a must-see for pretty much everybody. I didn’t have very high hopes for the film: I generally consider that video journalism has acquitted itself very badly over the course of the crisis and I blamed the medium rather than the messengers, many of whom are very smart and well-informed.

It turns out, however, that in expert hands, the medium, at least when it’s under the control of Ferguson, can do a spectacularly good job of presenting what happened and why — better than any newspaper series or magazine article or book or radio show.

What Ferguson has achieved here is an extremely impressive balancing act: while his explanations are clear-eyed and accurate, he’s never content to simply tell us what happened. He also takes pains to constantly remind us that people did this and that nearly all of them are still relaxing in plutocratic comfort even as millions of workers in America and around the world have seen their lives destroyed by the effects of the crisis.

Some of those people he manages to coax in front of the camera. The smart ones — including Summers, Rubin, and Greenspan — all said no, while a handful of academics, including Ric Mishkin and Glenn Hubbard, will forever regret saying yes. They’re hardly the biggest villains of the crisis and they’re not presented that way, but they are great examples of the way in which the financial elite is so used to the please-oh-wise-man-tell-us-what-you-think school of journalism that it’s genuinely shocked when it encounters anything else. (You won’t soon forget the scene where Hubbard, not even bothering to conceal his anger, spits at Ferguson, saying “you have three more minutes. Give it your best shot”; you will barely believe how Marty Feldstein happily says he has “no regrets” about his position on the board of AIG in the run-up to its collapse.)

A great Pixar movie manages to do two things at once: it entertains and delights the kids, while also giving their parents a fresh view of life with a remarkably adult perspective. Inside Job is similar, in a way: if you don’t really understand what happened during the financial crisis, it will explain that to you very clearly. If you do know what happened during the financial crisis, however, it will do something else: it will rekindle the anger and dudgeon that you might well have lost over the past three years of being buried in the financial weeds. Ferguson doesn’t do that Taibbi-style, by calling people names: he’s more effective than that and this film will surely galvanize the anti-Wall Street wings of both the Democratic and the Republican parties.

No financial journalist could have made this film: we were all far too close to the people and events depicted in it, which turn out to have really needed an outsider’s perspective. This is surely the first and last piece of financial journalism that Ferguson will ever make and it’s much more effective for it.

Still, I can’t help but hope that somehow this generation will somehow produce a Ferguson/Summers series of interviews to rival Frost/Nixon. Nixon only appeared, of course, because he was paid by Frost; Summers hardly needs the money, so Ferguson won’t be able to get him that way. But Ferguson has known Summers for many years, and maybe Summers’s legendary appetite for intellectual debate might persuade him to say yes after he leaves the government. Go on, Larry. I dare you.


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Doubt that’s enough taunting, Salmon. Go ‘double dog dare’ and you might get a result.

Posted by ottorock | Report as abusive

Isnt turning Larry Summers into the Richard Nixon of the financial crisis/scandals a bit of a reach? What’s the gotcha moment with Larry Summers??

Posted by corcoran310 | Report as abusive

removing leverage caps? Though Rubin would probably be more apt.

Anyway, Felix: one (minor?) point. Do you really think that what Taibbi is about is ‘calling people names’? Because if so, you’re certainly missing the point. Certainly Taibbi will attract a different audience, and perhaps he will even put off a few prisses who have still not learned to look past presentation style, but that hardly means that what he is saying is not relevant, or insightful.

Posted by Foppe | Report as abusive

As I read this, the futures are up 9 points on the day as fundamentals don’t matter anymore. Its all about QE, stimulus, and socialization of losses for reckless financial institutions. The plutocrats will always win. This will no doubt be an interesting movie that many will see but it won’t change anything. More turbo charged elitists will want to go and work on Wall Street to make the system more reckless and unstable.

Posted by mhmani | Report as abusive

Rubin would be a much better Nixon. Isn’t it you who said he’s the Waldo of the financial crisis, appearing at every page?

Posted by lemarin | Report as abusive

I am still hoping that the big guys have been served and as a courtesy, whilst they garner and peruse the paperwork, the SEC is too busy gleaning the dirty data they need to make the cases… to leak anything to the press…

Life needs to be more like the movies!! The bad guys shouldn’t get away with it!

Posted by hsvkitty | Report as abusive

This movie does a good job presenting the storyline of the financial meltdown. It also does a good job of raising anger in the viewers. I wish it would have maybe mixed in some footage of how some people in this country or around the world for that matter are dealing with their poverty for an even greater emotional effect.

Posted by SonuK | Report as abusive

“Isnt turning Larry Summers into the Richard Nixon of the financial crisis/scandals a bit of a reach? What’s the gotcha moment with Larry Summers??”

Summers didn’t engage in the mass murder of Cambodians and Vietnamese, but read his Wikipedia page. How many guys were not only fighting tooth and nail inside the US government to allow banks to do all the stuff that led to inside job, but have also written papers advocating that industrial nations dump their toxic waste in third world countries?

Posted by T-man | Report as abusive

There is no end to the individuals who could/should have been interviewed a film like this. This was a damn good start. BUT the point is just that… that there are so many bandits between DC and Wall Street that the actual enemy is the systemic corruption – the individuals will just change over time. We need ennforement of even existing laws – just stop the crime…

We need a new bumper sticker for the next election:
“It’s the CORUPPRION stupid”

Posted by ReformedRepub1 | Report as abusive

I can’t but help think how closely these time resemble the days approaching the French Revolution. With all the greed and corruption people like Fredrik Mishkin, with his studdering lies and constantly blinking eyes, deny, along with Glenn Hubbard and Larry Summers, I am only waiting for someone to reinvent a new guillotine. Like the Red Queen says in “Alice In Wonderland,” . . . Off with their head!!!

Posted by M.LaFarge | Report as abusive

What this movie has shown me is that our elected officals help this happened and so this is why most everyone got off scott free. We should re-open all these cases and make the Bank money wizards and stock market wizards pay back to us what they stoled and it would sure help our economy because this is big money. Oh yes they need to put several elected officals in jail along with the bankers.

Posted by jleaves | Report as abusive

“We should re-open all these cases and…”
I whole-heartedly agree, but…”we” can’t because “they” call the shots. And, like the last 10 min of the movie demonstrated with Barack’s choices for his key economic posts, no matter whom “we” elect, we soon find out that we elected one of “them”.

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