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Cannes: In the dark documentaries 'Inside Job' and 'Countdown to Zero,' it's the end of the world as we know it

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inside-jobYears from now, if you want to know how the American (and global) economic crisis really happened, if you want to grasp the ins and outs of its peculiar hybrid of greed and cluelessness and corporate treachery and political enabling, then Inside Job, the new documentary written and directed by Charles Ferguson, will stand as a definitive investigative primer on the disaster. The movie has been conceived and executed as a companion piece to No End in Sight (2007), Ferguson’s great inside-the-Iraq-war chronicle. Once again, he stands back, and also leans in close, to give you the big picture — in this case, how the unchecked, nearly metastatic growth of investment banking, the mania for deregulation, the new-fangled application of principles of physics and technology to debt and the stock market (that’s how we got derivatives, credit default swaps, and other M.C. Escher-worthy transactions), and the insidious psychology of investment bubbles all merged to create a high-finance runaway train that was destined to crash.

Inside Job nails down how “deregulation” was, in fact, a form of collusion. Everyone knows about the cheerleading of blurb-whore stock “analysts” and cable-TV frothing heads (it takes no big insight to see that Jim Cramer was whipping along our money addictions), but Ferguson, a former academic, does a ruthless job of revealing an aspect of the scandal that few have talked about: the selling out of prestigious economists who work in academia. It was these elite professors who gave seductive credibility to a corrupt ethic. Some of the most respected economic thinkers in the country — like Martin Feldstein, of Harvard, and Glenn Hubbard, dean of the Columbia University Business School — made, and still make, huge amounts of money from consulting fees, and when Ferguson confronts these men on camera and gets them to glower and squirm (or, in Feldstein’s case, smile like Yoda with a hemorrhoid), the movie lets you taste the cold vengeance that comes with deceptions laid bare.

I have to say, though, that the majority of Inside Job, as scrupulous and intelligent and fervent as it is, lacks that same force of revelation. When you watched No End in Sight, you felt that Ferguson had built an enormous bridge to our understanding of what went on in the run-up to, and execution of, the Iraq war. And part of the reason the movie was so powerful — so essential — was that our news organizations hadn’t done their job. The bridge of “understanding” that the media built was full of enormous, rusty holes, holes of misinformation and euphemism and reportorial apathy. The media built a bridge you couldn’t walk across; Ferguson filled in the holes, and it was a heroic act of documentary filmmaking.

With the financial crisis, the media has done a much better job. Yes, there are still many underreported aspects of the story, but even the most scathing moments of Inside Job, like the section in which Ferguson traces the many, many ties (far beyond Tim Geithner and Larry Summers) between President Obama’s economic and treasury appointments and the financial worlds these officials came from and still serve, is nothing I haven’t heard countless times from Paul Krugman or on cable news. In No End in Sight, Ferguson landed interviews with former Bush officials like Jay Garner, and they gave the movie a dimension of genuine whistleblowing. But it’s a revealing, and slightly frustrating, thing about Inside Job that no one powerful will talk! (The closest thing here to an inside advocate is Elliot Spitzer, pictured above.) If I had a billion dollars for every time the words “Tim Geithner refused to be interviewed for this film” or “Alan Greenspan refused to be interviewed for this film” appeared on screen, I could put a dent in the national debt.

Now, of course, that’s not Ferguson’s fault — and, in fact, it’s part of the collective con that went on. There was, and still is, a wall of silently arrogant indifference that cuts off the gilded financial class from the rest of us. And that’s Ferguson’s real big-picture theme: that investment banking, which used to be a responsible, if rarefied, way of making a lot of money, was once tethered to the society at large, but that over the last 30 years it became a sealed-off universe of its own — a pyramid floating in the air. Ferguson captures the rise and crash (and resurrection) of that pyramid, and he shows you that it could all happen again. That’s a very valuable thing for a movie to do, but Inside Job doesn’t build a bridge so much as it definitively unearths a lot of very familiar ground.

* * * *

I’m not sure if this counts as a rush-out-and-see-it recommendation, but the scary, gripping, responsibility-inducing, at times borderline exploitative Countdown to Zero makes old terrors radioactively new again. It’s that rare thing, a piece of responsible fear-mongering. Lucy Walker, the director of this documentary about the still clear-and-present danger of nuclear weapons, has her finger on the ultimate hot-button topic, and she doesn’t let go. The movie features spine-tingling descriptions of the moments we risked toppling into a nuclear conflagration — not just, famously, the Cuban Missile Crisis (Robert McNamara, filmed shortly before his death, is on hand to testify how close we really came there), but lesser-known incidents in 1977 and even 1995, when a wayward American missile resulted in the Russian nuclear football being opened and placed, for the first time, in front of Boris Yeltsin, who had five minutes to decide whether to respond with a full-on counterattack. (The movie says that, fortunately, he wasn’t drunk.)

countodwn-to-zeroImage Credit: Magnolia FilmsThen, of course, there’s the nightmare of our era, rogue nuclear terrorism. Countdown to Zero vividly illustrates how easy it is to buy enriched uranium on the black market, and what a simple mechanism a nuclear bomb actually is to build. By the time that Walker, making inspired use of the great holy swoon of Radiohead’s “Reckoner,” sets up a hypothetical what-would-a-bomb-blast-do-to-New York sequence, featuring footage of Times Square at New Year’s Eve — a sequence that is surely three times as potent now as when it was first assembled, given the chilling reality of the Times Square bomber — the movie comes close to being a piece of nuclear-anxiety porn. I would condemn it on that score if it wasn’t for the fact that the manipulation really works, and so I have to acknowledge that the movie is hardly creating fear in a vacuum. It’s trying to shock and horrify and jolt us out of the complacency that set in after the end of the Cold War.

On the subject of terrorism, however, Countdown to Zero does get a little dicey. It claims that the pieces are all in place: that al-Qaeda, and also Iran, badly wants a nuclear weapon, that all that’s needed to purchase the raw material is a few million dollars (which Osama bin Laden probably has in one of ten bank accounts), and that American physics and engineering graduate students have the know-how to build the basic centrifuge/cannon system that these weapons operate on. So if it really is that easy, then why hasn’t it been done? Countdown to Zero doesn’t have all the answers, but it’s so sharp in its excavation of the real-world danger of annihilation that it’s the rare piece of political filmmaking that could trigger, and unite, the reflexes of both the left and the right. It makes getting rid of nuclear weapons look less like a “cause” than an imperative.

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