Americans are generous in need and forgiving of mistakes. But we are outraged by injustice. This indispensable film shows us the who, what, when, where, and how of the financial crisis, finally placing it in the context it requires — a failure of decency, fairness, accountability, and honor. Even for those who want to put a pillow over their head when they hear terms like “credit default swap” and those whose eyes glaze over at the thought of watching a hearing on C SPAN will find this movie, the 2011 Oscar-winner for best documentary, a mesmerizing saga of corruption and greed, the biggest heist story of all time, and sadly, all too true.
Charles Ferguson (“No End in Sight”) is now at the front rank not just of documentarians but of film-makers, investigative journalists, and participants in the public policy debates. He begins with the story of what happened in Iceland, which went from one of the world’s most stable economies to bankruptcy almost overnight following deregulation. Its GDP was $13 billion; its debt was $100 billion. Still, at first this seems like an odd choice, but it quickly becomes clear that Iceland illustrates the same mistakes, oversights, bungles, and corruption that led to our own financial catastrophe. And by the final chapter of the film, it comes up again in a stunning interview. A flustered academic has to explain why a paper he once wrote about the financial stability of Iceland (without disclosing his financial arrangement with the people behind the deregulation) is now listed on his c.v. as being about Iceland’s instability. His explanation? It must be a typo.
This chilling absence of any sense of honor or shame or responsibility pervades the film. This is the story of “massive private gains and public loss.” Ferguson points out that this is just the most recent in a series of financial crises, each one causing more damage while the industry made more money. He describes the “great big global Ponzi scheme.” And he names names and shows us the faces of the people involved. He makes leverage, securitization, and yes, credit default swaps as fascinating as the Empire’s plans for the Death Star. And he points out that in the 21st century, it is financial instruments that are the real weapons of mass destruction.