Thursday, January 27, 2011

Recent Documentaries: Informative (Part 1)

I have a theory about documentaries. If you're a halfway decent filmmaker, and you've picked a good subject for a film, then, presto, you'll come up with a worthwhile documentary. It's when you don't have the instincts to shape a good doc, or have chosen a subject you can't do justice to, that pitfalls can and do occur. Because very few documentaries are made with box office in mind, most of the fact-based films that are released are usually made for the right reasons either to inform or educate on issues which cry out to be addressed, or to open windows on worlds we know little about. As for the difference between good and great docs, such as Capturing the Friedmans (2003) or Man on Wire (2008), well, that's a whole different ballgame, having as much to do with the story depicted on screen as they do with the person doing the depicting. 

Last year's best documentary films, Frederick Wisemans's La danse, Banksy's Oscar nominated Exit Through the Gift Shop and Jeff Malmberg's Marwencol, coincidentally all dealt with art: Wiseman's comprehensive, probing behind-the-scenes look at a famous French ballet troupe; Banksy's witty take on L.A, street artists and their British inspiration; Malmberg's moving portrait of a mentally damaged man's unique and therapeutic art project. (See my Best Films of the year list for more on those movies.) Three more recent, and comparatively lesser, documentary movies, Inside Job, Client 9 and A Film Unfinished, deal with history, from the ripped-from-the-headlines present to the relatively recent past.

The most topical of the three is Inside Job, which will likely win this year's Oscar for Best Documentary. It's popped up on numerous critics' best of the year lists, but I'd have to peg it as merely a good film, not a stellar entry in the form. 

The film, of course, couldn't be more relevant as it looks at the genesis of the 2008 economic meltdown, which devastated much of Europe and the United States. It also examines the ramifications that are still in play today. Director Charles Ferguson, whose first documentary was No End in Sight: The American Occupation of Iraq (2007) – the fine look at the complex American involvement in Iraq – is determined and succeeds handily in exposing the culprits behind the financial crisis. But he begins the film, which is well-narrated by Matt Damon, by visiting Iceland, a small but prosperous country that was doing just fine until some business folks had the bright idea at the beginning of this century of deregulating the country's main banks and letting them run wild in terms of purchasing anything they wanted and using people's money in any way they choose. The end result: unemployment, inflation and a failing banking system. Flash forward to the U.S. and the same actions, exemplified, first by President Ronald Reagan's deregulating a banking system that was running just fine since the Great Depression ended, and then by his successors, from both main political parties, aiding and abetting the excesses indulged in by banks, regulators and investment houses. They essentially continued to turn a blind eye to a crisis in the making. It was a bubble just waiting to burst, and when it did, it was a sound heard all around the world.

Ferguson's main point is that none of this had to happen, but an American capitalist system that allowed Wall Street to call the shots made it inevitable that it would. Fuelled by righteous anger, he meticulously lets various experts, including left-leaning financier George Soros, Congressman Barney Frank and Paul Volcker (former chair of the Federal Reserve) lay out the scenario whereby banks – who used to be accountable for any of their clients' money and therefore needed to be prudent in how and if they invested it – had, under deregulation, been given access to unlimited funds and other investment levers, such as credit default swaps. In effect, they engaged in huge Ponzi schemes, which, invariably collapsed, throwing millions out of work and costing the United States billions of dollars. That point could have even been better made if Ferguson and his crew had just opened their eyes, and gone next door to Canada, where tightly regulated banks ensured that that country weathered the recession relatively unscathed, and compared at least to the U.S.

What's most disturbing about Inside Job is the sheer chutzpah engaged in by those men and women who let this entire calamity happen. The most extreme example revolves around the likes of Moody's investor service, the venerable financial institution which traditionally recommends which stocks are the best to buy and sell. However, people at that company, and the other two main services, knew they were advocating investments in 'shit' (their word) companies and blithely continued to do so even as the financial crisis hit the U.S. Confronted by angry American politicians, their defence was that they only proferred 'opinions' on which stocks to purchase, views that should not have been taken seriously, this from people paid big bucks for 'expert' advice that was relied upon by hundreds of thousands of investors. As I said, sheer chutzpah, which should anger anyone who cares about honesty and justice in the world especially when Ferguson points out that no one has gone to jail for their (financial) crimes. 

Inside Job also makes clear that what happened on Wall Street was not a matter of specifically Democratic or Republican skulduggery. Both parties were guilty of allowing companies like Goldman Sachs, AIG, Fannie Mae and others, to evade regulations or control over their actions. They were also then bailed out by the American government, to the tune of millions of taxpayer dollars, when they fell apart or went bankrupt. Besides Republican Ronald Reagan, who started this mess and likely will come to be seen by future historians as one of America's worst Presidents, Democrat Bill Clinton is the other main villain. Over and over again, his administration stymied genuine efforts by conscientious regulators to wrest back control of the banks and ensure they played fair. Sadly, the current Obama administration, despite fulsome promises to bring 'change' to how things are being done in Washington and on Wall Street, continues the pattern of hiring the same culprits who were culpable in what's gone wrong in the U.S. economy to date. Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner, National Economic head Larry Summers (also Harvard president for awhile, and a key character in The Social Network) and re-appointed Federal Reserve chair Ben Barnanke, all tainted by their connections to disgraced companies and lobbyists, are important components of the present American government. As the French say, "the more things change, the more they stay the same."

Michael Moore, from Capitalism: A Love Story
Oddly, what's missing from Inside Job is any sense of the people who have lost everything, the millions of ordinary Americans who have suffered the most because of the actions of a few. Besides brief mentions of groups who lost their life savings in pension funds that collapsed in Tennessee and the U.S. Virgin Islands, there is, late in the film, a short appearance by a Hispanic couple, who don't speak English and were defrauded by their realtor, plus an unemployed construction worker living in a tent city in Florida. But that's it. Ferguson is so intent on building his damning case against the villains on Wall Street and in politics that he's forgotten to focus on the victims. For that view you would have to go to Michael Moore's atypically honest and restrained Capitalism: A Love Story (2009), which is all about the individuals who have been failed by their country's financial and political system. From workers in Chicago refusing to leave the premises of their shuttered factory until they were paid the severance they were owed, to a family in Detroit staying put in the house whose mortgage payments they defaulted on after decades of being able to meet the payments, to an Idaho farmer facing eviction from his family farm, Capitalism: a Love Story brings their plight, and by extension many others, to damning light. But if you bookend Moore's film and Inside Job, you'll have a powerful look at the shameful actions carried out by those who have led us to where we are today.

One of the few politicos who took on Wall Street and often succeeded in bringing her to heel was Eliot Spitzer, former New York State Attorney General and Governor, who flamed out spectacularly when he was caught dallying with hookers in 2008 and resigned his office soon after. Spitzer is the fascinating subject of Client 9: The Rise and Fall of Eliot Spitzer, the latest documentary from Alex Gibney, whose film Taxi to the Dark Side won the 2007 Best Documentary Oscar. (Client 9, which is now out on DVD, was shortlisted for the award but failed to place in the final five.) 

Spitzer, who was also one of the main interviewees in Inside Job, is the real deal, an honest, incorruptible and charismatic politician who could have made a significant difference if he hadn't had to leave office, perhaps even having become, as a voiceover at the outset of the movie puts it, "the country's first Jewish President." Yet, he also had demons which prompted him to begin frequenting prostitutes soon after he won the governorship with a remarkable 69% of the vote in 2006. By 2008 he was toast, the punch line for numerous jokes about politicians who could not keep it in their pants.  

Eliot Spitzer, from Inside Job
Why did he do what he did and what does it say about America that sexual peccadilloes, which have nothing to do with competency in office, could force a man like him from office? On the latter, Gibney's point that in other countries this 'setback' wouldn't matter is valid but obvious. (One funny comment made in the film is that Spitzer would likely have won election in France precisely because he paid for sex.) On the former, Client 9, however, falls short. The film skirts Spitzer's clear deficiencies, from an out-of-control temper – he often called political opponents to threaten war against them – to the self-destructive tendencies that drove him into the ground. If we are to believe that he only started to go to prostitutes when he became governor, then what reckless behaviour did he indulge in before he attained that goal? The film never says, and worse, ignores the salient point made in Inside Job, that the financial imbroglio in the U.S. was not a partisan affair. Client 9 casts Spitzer as the honest, even noble Jimmy Stewart-like Democrat up against the crooked Republicans, even though the film also points out that Spitzer had pretty much alienated all his fellow New York Democrats by the time his reputation fell into tatters. To be fair, his main opponent Republican New York Senate Majority leader Joe Bruno was a slippery, old style corrupt politician who could have stepped out of the set of The Sopranos. And though Spitzer laudably submits to being interviewed in the film, he remains an enigma. Ultimately, Client 9 lacks the psychological, trenchant analysis which would have made the film resonate more as a political and personal tragedy.

Both Inside Job and Client 9 are laudable efforts trying to get at important issues of our time. But good intentions aren't enough and sometimes films on vital topics go awry and in the case of certain documentaries, even stoop to the lowest common denominator of exploitative filmmaking. I'll look at one of those films, Yael Hersonski's Holocaust documentary A Film Unfinished, tomorrow.

-- Shlomo Schwartzberg is a film critic, teacher and arts journalist based in Toronto . He will be teaching a course on film genre this winter at Ryerson University's LIFE Institute. For more information go to 

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