It’s the Economy, Stupid 

Inside Job and Freakonomics
Directed by Charles Ferguson and Seth Gordon et al.

A charge sometimes leveled against the political scientist and dotcom multimillionaire Charles Ferguson is that his recapumentaries, No End in Sight and now Inside Job, don’t tell us anything we didn’t already know about the Iraq War and now the financial meltdown. But I suspect this flatters the current-events literacy of even the most well-intentioned liberals—the people, that is, most likely to see a documentary promising an infuriating education in an already pretty familiar topic. The people who’ll watch Inside Job are exactly the people who should watch it: people like Ferguson, who cuts away from his antagonistic interviews with Bushies and free-marketeers, to buttress his convictions and with researched data, rather than authoritative recall.

Ferguson assembles talking heads, infographics (his crack at explaining credit-default swaps is clearer than most), and articles and papers, with key passages highlighted and narrated, with slightly different wording, by Matt Damon. His chronology takes us from Reaganomics to Clintonian deregulation to Carl Levin hammering Lloyd Blankfein this spring, tracing the absurd, rational progression of "innovation," fake money leveraged out of real, ugly houses, and incentivized greed.

Ferguson sticks it to financial-sector suits on executive compensation, perhaps seeing a populist opening: he’s eager to widen his address with lessons clumsily copied from Michael Moore’s school of catharsis, from gotcha music cues ("Takin’ Care of Business") to facepalmingly literal stock footage (the global economy=random Chinese signage). This is bad filmmaking, and, more to the point with a Ferguson doc, bad politics, absenteeism from Inside Job’s real work of making historical and systemic causes comprehensible. At its best, the film is an antidote to anecdote, offering a sustainable worldview in contrast to the cute cocktail-party shortcuts of the new omnibus doc Freakonomics.

Here, "rogue economist" Steven Levitt and journo Stephen Dubner cheerfully discuss incentives in segments (directed by executive producer Seth Gordon) bridging illustrations of chapters from their conventional wisdom-upending pop-economics bestseller (cover blurb by Malcolm Gladwell). Ferguson’s sometime collaborator Alex Gibney is on hand to attempt a link to the financial crisis—that he does so within an assignment about match-fixing in sumo wrestling says much about the film’s windup-toy approach to the dismal science. Examining causation and correlation in the economic implications of baby names, Morgan Spurlock revels, with data’s permission, in racial stereotyping (popup shots of booty-shaking sistas illustrate the many ways black parents spell "Unique"); so too do the dark, scary crack-wave animations in Eugene Jarecki’s otherwise cautious, very quick summary of the book’s abortion-as-crime-deterrent thesis. Only the directors of the last chapter, Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady, get out of the postproduction lab. Following freshmen at a struggling public high school where one of Levitt’s U of Chicago colleagues is testing a pay-for-grades system, Ewing and Grady snag moments of harried parenting and outer-city desolation reminding us that all the lessons of Freakonomics amount to is doodling at the margins of profound structural inequality, best understood not through neat animations illustrating push-button causality, but through long-haul civic engagement.

Opening October 8, October 1


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