As someone who knows next to nothing about the inner workings of financial institutions, I feel like I just sat through an extreme economics lesson. And I mean that in the best possible way. Even though I've never had any particularly strong academic interest in economics, Charles Ferguson's ridiculously entertaining documentary Inside Job explores the subject with such exciting vigour that it all suddenly seems nothing short of fascinating. Offering an insightful and fact-packed look at the financial crisis that rocked the globe in 2008, Ferguson's dedicated doc plays like a rich exposé and a hearty textbook, an odd combination made engaging by extremely precise editing.
Breaking down the movie into four parts, each with its own specific set of information, Ferguson unveils his thesis using a carefully orchestrated approach. He takes us through the rotten rise of the financial sector in the United States, reveals the factors that led to the recent recession, explains the actual meltdown in detail, and then offers a summary of where the situation has currently left us. It's enough pure content to make one's head spin (my mind was racing trying to keep up with some of the terminology alone!), but it's delivered with such clarity that it's far more compelling than confusing.
In order to make visual sense of all the facts and figures, Ferguson employs several eye-catching charts and graphs throughout the narrative. The graphics are clean and attractive, but Ferguson doesn't lose sight of why they're on the screen and what they have to say. In some modern documentaries that tackle big subjects, the temptation to use flashy graphics to make a point can result in overkill, burying the movie under a pile of fancy imagery that ultimately becomes a distraction. But with Inside Job, Ferguson's use of the graphics is purposefully informative.
Covering everything from investor earnings to rising house costs, the charts and graphs are many and they are always helpful. And that ties into what makes Ferguson such an impressive documentary filmmaker. He jams so much sheer info into his movie and he conducts (and then shares in edited form) numerous interviews to support his claims and yet none of it ever seems bloated or extraneous. He isn't just tossing information at us in hopes that some of it will stick and he isn't interested in padding out the narrative. The elements he uses (the graphics, the interviews) are standard doc tools, but Ferguson's use of them is really quite ambitious and tightly controlled.
Even the extra flourishes that show the kind of money this documentary has behind it that many others do not are able to add to the experience. Inside Job is narrated by Matt Damon and, while having such a high profile celebrity record the main voice-over isn't the least bit necessary (outside of obvious visibility benefits that are earned by adding a big name to the poster), he isn't at all distracting, so that's good. Also, loads of helicopter footage providing ominous bird's-eye views of Manhattan and sprawling estates add to the eerie sense of disconnected power, rather than take away from it.
Ferguson has only directed one other documentary so far (that would be the equally excellent No End in Sight, which examined America's invasion of Iraq), but with these two movies, he has exhibited a grand talent for digging into big, serious issues without resorting to sentimentality or emotional manipulation. Inside Job makes its points without pandering to the audience. The interview subjects who represent opinions that run in the polar opposite direction of Ferguson's thesis are not depicted as buffoons (well, one particularly inarticulate guy may seem to flirt with such a classification at times), even though Ferguson's button-pushing questions do appear to get under their skin.
With a topic and event as complicated as this (and Inside Job only convinces me it's far more convoluted than I ever previously imagined), no one movie can be expected to capture every aspect of the story from all angles. But Ferguson's rich documentary certainly provides a riveting and focused look at what caused this financial mess. If I have any complaints, it's that once the points are made and the facts are fully laid out, Inside Job ends on a very predictable note. Wrapping the movie up with an obvious concluding thought is certainly uninspired, but even this lack of originality is somewhat understandable and a reminder of how unique the rest of the movie is. Either way, it's a very minor complaint in the midst of much praise. This is a great documentary that says a lot in a very enthralling voice. If you've ever wanted a cinematic economics lesson (or perhaps especially if not), then Charles Ferguson's Inside Job is well worth attending. You won't even need to bring a textbook.