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Time Out New York Project: Issue #784, October 7-13, 2010
Dir. Charles Ferguson. 2010. PG-13. 108mins. Documentary.
It’s fun to watch the bastards squirm. Charles Ferguson’s fleet, informative talking-heads documentary gives us ample opportunity to observe the architects of the 2008 financial crisis fidgeting under a harsh spotlight. We laugh at the evasions of these fiscal bogeymen — such as former Federal Reserve board member Frederic Mishkin insisting with his best poker face that he left his post to “finish a textbook” — even as we seethe at the facts of their still-unpunished crimes. How interesting that so many of them agreed to be interviewed.
Ferguson uses innumerable tricks of the slick-doc trade (pop-music montages; gotcha smash cuts; celebrity narration — in this case, Matt Damon). Even the title is a loaded, tragedy-invoking provocation. But the arguments beneath the incensing artifice are clearheaded, and Ferguson doesn’t refrain from crossing party lines to show how everyone from Reagan to Obama has enabled the snake-oilers-cum-money-managers. The film does a stellar job of coherently explaining banking gobbledygook like subprime loans, derivatives and investment-grade ratings. And it stumps for industrywide reform with sober conviction, to the point that a climactic detour into a tent city populated with myriad have-nots acts as an emotional sucker punch. It’s as if we’ve descended from the gilded halls of power to the dismaying, neglected realities below.
Ferguson’s trying to move beyond the political dichotomies that divide us into bellowing factions and show how rampant greed screws us all. Yet the film doesn’t follow through on the righteous indignation it stirs up. Some vaguely moral and patriotic poses are struck (over a soaring image of the Statue of Liberty, Damon fuzzily declaims that “some things are worth fighting for”). But our fury is never directed toward concrete solutions, and that allows the guilty parties to slip, perhaps permanently, from our grasp.—Keith Uhlich