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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