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David Thomson on Films: ‘Inside Job’

This timely, lucid documentary deserves a Best Picture nomination.

I have some reservations about the movie Inside Job (made by Charles Ferguson, a man I know a little and like), and I’ll address them. But they don’t matter. They don’t begin to alter my estimate that, if Inside Job is not among the ten nominations for Best Picture Oscar, it will be one more travesty that points to the feebleness and the lost soul of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.

My reservations? There is a certain, spurious air of “thriller” to the movie, something that smacks of a tone introduced in dramatized documentaries coming out of Britain in the late ’70s and ’80s. You can feel it in the helicopter shots that track over the green wastes of Iceland and the Lego-scapes of Manhattan. Those shots are thrilling for their own sake. They bespeak a misguided urge to be “visual” or “cinematic” in a picture of talking heads. There is a rumble of sinister music on and off throughout, which again suggests a lack of confidence, a need to keep the audience keyed up—as if the material could be less important or sufficient.

Then, there are the talking heads themselves, placed and composed in tasteful ways, off to one side of the screen with “décor” filling the rest of the image and helplessly supplying an atmosphere for the heads. In nearly all these headshots, where people are in effect testifying, they are allowed to look off, at the interviewer, instead of directly into the lens. The angled look is a convention from fiction films, and a kindness to people being interviewed. It is not proper here in a film where candor and character—as facts we may perceive—are vital. Some of the films of Errol Morris have found a way to have witnesses trapped by the camera. It is less pleasing to look at, less smooth, but Inside Job needs it.

Finally, there is the use of Matt Damon to narrate the film—the class of a young, likeable actor and an emerging businessman. And that’s old-fashioned and diverting, especially when it is the voice of Ferguson himself on the sound track that often pursues the shifty witnesses, gets snappy rebukes from them and embodies the necessary anger and point in a film that says, at last, “What do we do about this? … Isn’t it worth fighting for?”

I think Ferguson should have been the voice of his film. But it doesn’t matter. None of what I see as faults or limitations matters in what is, in two hours, an amazingly lucid account of the way greed, ineptness, and irresponsibility have brought much of the world to its knees. If you have talked to people who have seen Inside Job, time and again, you hear reports along these lines of, “I never really understood the situation before. But here I got enough of it to begin to see.”

It is only a two-hour documentary, and we are kidding ourselves if we think that such works can truly contain situations as complex as this one. But Inside Job makes it clear that there were economics professors and financial journalists (here and abroad) who did foresee what was coming with forlorn accuracy. An underlying point to the film (it’s like a dread) is that we live in a culture thoroughly accustomed to burying or obscuring its large mistakes, or crimes, and passing its “news” off as a show. There is footage here from congressional hearings where rats squirm, and that footage is as good as the exposure of Claude Rains in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington—and as vain. (That Rains character tries to kill himself, but fiction can be naively idealistic. These rats are now king rats on their bonuses.) For Ferguson spells out how thoroughly the rats were rehabilitated by brother rats, and by the sublime assurance that Congress and the media—the means of investigation and report—would fade away.

So, just in terms of a movie gotcha, nothing is as successful here or as anger-making as the interviews with top university economists (Frederic Mishkin and Glenn Hubbard, say) who taught their subjects and wrote assist articles for deregulation and all the other disasters. They were paid lavishly for such things but did not admit the compromise, and they even held government positions. 

Hubbard gets very tense and regrets doing his interview. But the king rats—from Alan Greenspan to Larry Summers, and so on—their role is subtler and more characteristic. They were “not available for interview.” And I’m sure they have the lawyers to prove it.

By January 20, Inside Job had grossed just over $3.65 million in the United States, and it seems to have played at about 250 theatres at its peak. So I’m sure its distributor, Sony Classics, is pleased with it. (And the film industry as a whole—such as it is—may be relieved that its own need for the insane financial system of recent years is not pointed out in the picture.)

Two hundred and fifty theaters may be good business, yet it is absurd. I don’t say that as an attack on Sony Classics, but as a way of addressing the place of our media. 

Documentary exposés run the risk of being the equivalent of the escort services employed by the Wall Street rats. In other words, the melodrama gets quick attention, but then, it proves to be incidental (and peanuts). Inside Job should not be put away. It should be on television now, on all major networks. What it addresses, that it exists—those things matter.

That’s where the Academy comes into focus. It is the suggestion of the Academy, I think, that it presides over film affairs and has the wisdom to perceive what are our best pictures over the years. This is crass nonsense. The Academy has always been dedicated to public relations and self-serving, and its record of selecting the best movies is as bad as anyone’s. It has in recent years gone for ten nominees for Best Picture—for the simple reason of trying to build its TV audience. This allows a range of pictures—including animation and even Hollywood mainstream films of interest (if you can find them)—to have a chance. Very well—ten pictures. I challenge anyone to find a movie with a topic that matches Inside Job for its relevance. The film may not be perfect, but don’t let the Academy use that as an argument. Inside Job has to be nominated for Best Picture if the Academy is not lining up for its share of our shame.

David Thomson is the author of The New Biographical Dictionary of Film and The Moment of Psycho: How Alfred Hitchcock Taught America to Love Murder.

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