'Inside Job' director Charles Ferguson: The 'tea party' is not the answer
Charles Ferguson's anatomy-of-a-financial-crisis film "Inside Job" -- in which he documents in a sober, level-headed tone the 2008 economic crash and buttonholes academics, government officials and Wall Street executives he believes were responsible -- provokes plenty of rage about how we got into such a fiscal mess. (It also has angered some of the people it depicts, such as former Federal Reserve Board governor Frederic Mishkin, who is called to task for a report he authored; in an op-ed in the Financial Times earlier this month, he offered this rebuttal.)
We caught up with Ferguson, who previously directed the anatomy-of-a-military-crisis movie "No End in Sight," to hear his latest views on the economy, the reaction to the film and whether he thinks the "tea party" has the answers.
One of the most scathing aspects of the film is how you implicate Barack Obama and his administration for perpetuating the crisis with its lax oversight of Wall Street. Do you foresee a new direction for the administration now, especially with the resignation of Larry Summers?
I don't see much change at all. And the small amount of change we do see is driven by political fear as opposed to a real change in sentiment or policy. The underlying rules of the game have not changed very much.
Why do you think most people have been slow to recognize, then, that this has not just been a George W. Bush problem?
I think that many people in America believe by supporting and voting for Barack Obama they would be fixing this problem, and part of the emotional difficulty for Americans is to come to terms with the fact that it's not the case. It's a bipartisan problem. You can't just address it by voting for a different kind of party or candidate. It's going to be longer and harder take a bottom-up change, like the civil rights movement or the environment.
In the eyes of many Americans, the tea party has taken up that mantle. What do you make of their place in prompting reform?
I think in a situation where people are under a great deal of economic stress, it's natural to get movements like this. But traditionally in American history they don't last a very long time. The more significant question is whether there's going to be a serious movement for reform, which I don't take the tea party to be.
Why is that?
One of the things that's most striking about the movie is how you actually get people on camera to squirm. Was that difficult to pull off?
There were a lot of people who didn't want to talk me. But it was very important to me to do it that way. It's one thing to lay out a set of facts; it's another to watch someone be able to defend themselves when confronted with them. It makes the argument a lot more secure.
Even though you keep the tone even-keeled, you clearly relish the moments of catching executives and government officials in their own contradictions. Did you ever worry that it would look like you were playing the gotcha game?
Actually, it's quite the opposite.There was an earlier cut of the film with people saying things that were more outrageous and astonishing. I cut them, because I worried if you destroyed them so completely you may engender sympathy for them. I had to dial it back just enough to get the point across but not to completely destroy these people.
One of the people you confront is Frederic Mishkin, who comes out looking complicit in the crisis because of his 2006 report that largely assured the world of the financial stability of Iceland. What did you make of Mishkin's reaction since the film came out, particularly his piece in the FT?
I think it was rather unwise of him to write it. It's extremely clear if you compare what he says to what we show in the film who's right and who's not. If I was in his position I would have just issued a short press release saying I made a mistake with regard to Iceland and that's it.
You expose a lot of conflicts of interest in the movie, like the fact that impartial academics received compensation from corporate power players. Did the level of cravenness ever surprise you?
I did not expect it to be that bad when I started making the film. I knew that conflicts of interest existed in a general way. I didn't realize how pervasive they were. The degree of dishonesty and shamelessness was extreme.
Are you optimistic that reform is possible?
I think we could be facing another bubble and crisis within a decade. Even now, the financial service industry has a disproportionate share of political influence. I don't think we'll have another crisis in the next couple of years. Memories are still fresh and people are still badly burned. But I don't see much change in the underlying drivers of Wall Street behavior.
Photo: "Inside Job" poster. Credit: Sony Pictures Classics
RECENT AND RELATED: