Ferguson's latest blood-boiler, Inside Job, tackles the most important topic of our time: the Wall Street meltdown of 2008. Ferguson and crew (including narrator Matt Damon) give us an accessible, long-lensed view of a complex topic and its 30-year trajectory — from Ronald Reagan's 1980s-era laissez-faire, trickle-down economics to the Clinton administration's repealing of the Glass Steagall Act to the further relaxing of financial regulations and enforcement in the George W. Bush era to the unfortunate post-crash, business-as-usual hiring of the Obama economic team.
Inside Job's various talking heads reveal ethically dubious (if not outright criminal) behavior at almost every level of the financial system — from Wall Street to our so-called regulatory agencies to, somewhat surprisingly, academia. The film even offers a relatively easy-to-digest breakdown, via a bevy of simple graphs and charts, of how investment banks and other likeminded entities gamed the system by way of complex derivative schemes, risky subprime loans and credit default swaps.
To date, not one person has gone to prison, despite fraud that resulted in trillions of dollars in losses and an economic recession that continues to wreck havoc across the world.
CityBeat recently discussed the film with Ferguson, a onetime software company entrepreneur with a B.A. in mathematics and a Ph.D. in political science whose love of movies eventually led to his current role as an ace documentarian.
CityBeat: This film, like your last one, No End in Sight,deals with some pretty infuriating subject matter. Yet, contrary to what a lot of documentarians might have done, you present the material in a very clear-headed, matter-of-fact way. What was your thinking behind taking that approach as opposed to a more forceful one?
Charles Ferguson: We did that for several reasons. First of all, I just work better and get more done if I don't get emotional about things. I very much wanted, in the interviews and editing and making of it, to get it right. I wanted the correct information to be there, so I tried to keep a level head.
And then with regard to my view of the way the film should be and the way audiences should receive it, we wanted very much to make a film that would appeal to a very wide audience, one that would not appeal to just the already converted. We didn't want to make a film that was for Democrats or liberals or leftists or people who already knew a lot about finance; we wanted to make a film that everybody could see and enjoy and relate to and learn from. We wanted to make a film that wasn't ideological in any way.
CB: Inside Job makes a very complex issue pretty accessible. Was it a challenge to distill the story behind the collapse into a two-hour movie?
We have a lot of really extraordinary material that we couldn't include for reasons of time. The first assembly of the film was six hours. It was reasonably easy to get to two-and-a-half hours, but it was very hard to get to what we have now. We did it, but it was tough.
CB: While you did get in a lot of information and clearly interviewed a lot of people, you didn't get access to several key figures in the film: Alan Greenspan, Timothy Geithner and Larry Summers, to name a few.
CF: We tried seriously hard. In fact, we went to extraordinary lengths to get both senior Wall Street executives and senior people in the Obama administration to speak with us.
CB: Well, in a certain sense you can't blame them for ducking you. While it seems like you were entirely fair to the various interviewees, a lot people in the film don't come off very well, people like John Campbell (department chair of Harvard University’s Department of Economics), Glenn Hubbard (chief economic advisor during the Bush administration and current dean of the Columbia University Business School) and Frederic Mishkin (American economist and professor at Columbia Business School), all of whom of essentially hang themselves with their own words.
CF: Believe me, if you were to see their full interviews uncut, it would look even worse.
CB: One of the big questions I had after watching the film was whether people like Greenspan and Summers believed that their philosophy of deregulation and unfettered markets was truly the right thing for the country, or did they knowingly engaging in nefarious acts?
CF: I think it's complicated. Alan Greenspan I don't know personally; I've never even met him. We tried very hard to interview him. We tried hard to get everybody in the Obama administration from President Obama on down, some of whom I do know. I mention that because I do know Larry Summers. I've observed Larry behave many times over the course of a quarter century.
It's complicated, but I think that there is some sincere ideological belief in markets and economic theory. I think there is also a very big dose of personal ambition. Summers is an incredibly, voraciously ambitious man. It's also human nature to make up justifications for things that you have done that have been in your self-interest.
A friend of mine discussing this issue said to me one time, “It takes a really brilliant guy to make a really horrible mistake.” There is some truth to that for two reasons: The first is that if you're really dumb then you don't get to a level in the world where you can inflict real damage, and the other reason is that ordinary mere mortals aren't able to make up these incredibly convoluted rationalizations for why something that's obviously stupid and evil is actually OK.
CB: Speaking of brilliant guys who make very questionable decisions, presidents Clinton and Obama have made decisions that seem to be antithetical to what they stand for — Clinton in allowing the repeal of the Glass-Steagall Act and now Obama in essentially hiring the same guys who got us in this mess. What were they thinking?
CF: That's a very good question. The two cases are different. Clinton's decisions I think are somewhat more excusable, shall we say.
Overall, the U.S. and world economies were booming at the time. Overall, it didn't seem as if these guys grotesquely mismanaged the economy. That's not to say I would give Mr. Clinton a complete pass on these questions. I think that he should have known better with regard to some of these things — especially the lack of derivative regulation and the Internet bubble, which included rampant fraud — but I think they left it alone because it was in their political interest to leave it alone. It actually took Eliot Spitzer to do anything at all about that.
Obama has only one excuse, which is that he had no personal experience when he was elected president; very little if any training in economics and finance. He had to rely on the people around him, and the people around him were basically recycled Clinton administration types like Larry Summers, so that's the advice he got. But by the time he was elected, many people in print said that these people were discredited and their ideas had been discredited, so it's not like he didn't know. And now two years later all those people are still there. That's not good.
CB: Do you think movies, and specifically documentaries, can make a difference in the public's perception of issues?
CF: Well, we'll find out (laughs). I don't know. I'm agnostic about that. I think sometimes they can — I think An Inconvenient Truth had an impact on American public opinion. Whether my film will, I don't know.
CB: You have a pretty interesting background, but you didn't study film academically, nor did you do anything film-related prior to No End in Sight. Why did you decide to become a first-time filmmaker in your fifties?
CF: Because I love film, and I have since I was a kid. I used to cut class sometimes in high school to go to the San Francisco Film Festival. I've loved film forever. I've gone to the Telluride Film Festival every year for the last 15 years. There came a point in my life where I had no other obligations, and I had some financial security — not private jets, private islands, but enough that I could afford not to work for a year or two — so I thought, “Why shouldn't I try this?”
CB: I'm glad you did.
CF: So am I. I love making movies.
INSIDE JOB opens Nov. 12 at the Esquire Theatre. Check out theaters and show times, see the trailer and get theater details here.
Read Cole Smithey's review of Inside Job here.