Over the course of last year, I have successfully managed to hijack this column with an agenda of my own. I have rather conveniently, with the help of mere punctuation, bastardised my editor’s noble vision of ‘writing about movies with a business focus’ to ‘writing about movies, with a business focus’. It has worked out all right, but for the occasional gentle prod to pick a more relevant movie, which I have just about managed to ignore. However, when the movie review aggregating website that I swear by, gave phenomenal ratings to the Inside Job, I decided to give in. Considering it was a documentary about the 2008 global economic crisis, I was wary that I would lose interest, but it turned out to be a real good watch.
It is an interesting decision to make a documentary instead of a mainstream movie adaptation of any real life incident. After all, the latter could mean more creative freedom, allowing the addition of a lot of fictional elements to make it more audience friendly. Whatever be the reasons for this choice- whether the financial crisis did not lend itself to be made into a screenplay with a tangible plot or if the documentary added a certain degree of seriousness to the way the issue is dealt with, the end product is still infused with a few cinematic elements. A spiffy soundtrack, excellent visuals- of Iceland in the beginning and some nice shots of the New York skyline, instances of dark humour, as people having some kind of responsibility in the crisis are asked uncomfortable questions and put into awkward situations, all of these do a lot to prevent it from being just a dry retelling of the events as they occurred. What stands out the most is the meticulous research, the simplicity with which the financial complexities are explained and most importantly, the objectivity with which the subject is portrayed. Even as the documentary ends, it does so with a portentous observation of how most of the key players in the crisis have been retained as part of the Obama administration.
Castles in the air
One of the things that was reiterated throughout the documentary was how this flawed notion of creating something from nothing contributed to the crisis. One of the quotes in the documentray captures the essence of this beautifully – ‘Engineers build bridges, financial engineers build dreams’. It is really amazing that an entire industry could be created, and be able to thrive on financial products whose value is just linked to the repayment of mortgages, or in most cases the non-repayment of them. Another interesting observation made was about how the technology industry has not seen any such scams or crises as it is fundamentally a creative industry, where the creation of wealth is directly linked to the creation of real products.
Inside Job also talks about how deregulation is inherently deemed a bad word in a free market. Any kind of interference from the government is seen as anti-capitalistic and meets tough resistance from the financial policy makers. However, the policy makers themselves were from the very sector that benefited from the policies they drafted, and many of them reaped rich rewards from the windfall of the questionable decisions they made. It is one thing to question deregulation because it is an attempt to constrain a free market and hinder progress, but at the same time lobbying for bills with vested interests in their passing is not exactly conforming to the principles of a free market either. This conflict of interest of the key players extends even into the practices of the credit rating agencies, who were paid by the very banks whose products they rated. The interviewer in the documentary perfectly analogises this and other such instances of obvious bias, to a medical researcher’s paper on a drug in which he has commercial interests.
One of the things that is conspicuously missing in the Inside Job is the lack of focus on the American consumer’s contribution to the crisis, especially considering they made it to Time magazine’s top 25 people to blame. While the point that the bank and loan company executives took home whopping bonuses and obscene salaries is hammered in multiple times, the fact that many Americans readily took on mortgages much beyond their means, merely because they were given loans is never mentioned. At the same time, all top executives, financial experts and academicians who had a definitive role to play in allowing this crisis to happen are highlighted and some of them even interviewed. Inside Job also explores the dark side of investment bankers, in which soliciting prostitutes and drug abuse, both personally and to lure clients is common practice. To me, as a salaried employee of a company, the question that lingers is what these individuals, who sold flaky financial products, gave high credit ratings to them and handed out loans like free candy could have done to prevent the crisis. When your line of work involves selling products that are known to be crappy, quitting is not an option unless you decide to change careers, as most other firms you can move to are probably doing the same thing. Whistle-blowing or protesting against these practices demand a high degree of personal sacrifice. When the money is good, everyone around you is doing it and when it is more a question of ethics and not legality, it is difficult to accept, but not difficult to see why they did what they did.