Maybe I just have a skeptical view on anything that purports to explain and solve a global problem in under 2 hours, but the word that kept coming to mind while I was watching this documentary — a film intended to dissect and point fingers at those responsible for the current financial crisis — was “oversimplified.”
I may just be a very trusting sort who doesn’t want to believe in the absolute corruption of these people that director Charles Ferguson has decided to hang out to dry, and it’s not that I don’t think there was any corruption at all or any stupid or unethical business practices going on. But the fact that the movie doesn’t actually explain all its jargon and is only occasionally clear about the technical aspects of the industry, and often cuts away from an interviewee before they can answer a particularly damning question, makes me feel like what I’m seeing is very manipulated and not really giving me the whole picture.
For example, the film soundly condemns “derivatives” as extremely risky investments that were an obvious ticking time bomb that caused massive collapses. But it doesn’t actually explain what derivatives are and why they’re so risky. The film throws it around like an automatic negative buzzword and yes, backs it up with the word of some respected economists, but other respected economists had disagreed, so am I just supposed to accept that they must have all been corrupt?
The film does a very good job discrediting a lot of economists by pointing out that they have conflicts of interest — they are often on the payroll of financial institutions which reward them handsomely for their positive feedback on the jobs they’re doing. But surely not all of the economists were paid off, and what about journalists? As Ezra Klein at the Washington Post points out, journalistic rockstar Michael Lewis wrote a book, The Big Short, about the financial system not long before the crisis, and did not seem to think derivatives were a problem, apparently buying into the idea that derivative don’t increase risk; they “redistribute it.” I have honestly only a vague idea of what that means, and yeah, the vague idea I have does look pretty bad because it seems to be saying that banks are not responsible for loans that aren’t paid back; old retired folks who buy the loans as securities are the ones left holding the bag if something goes wrong, as it in fact did. But I’m just a Creative Writing major and am fully aware that there are many things about the business world that I do not understand, but that doesn’t mean that smart businesspeople and top-notch journalists like Lewis don’t understand them. Was he paid off? Lazy in his investigation? Fooled by the system? Just stupid? I don’t know. Seems unlikely — to me, anyway. More likely is that there are some aspects of the financial industry, such as derivatives, that are just very complex and not explained thoroughly in the movie because then finger-pointing gets more difficult to do.
I’m not saying the film doesn’t make its point better on some other jargony topics. The explanation of AIG’s practice of credit-default-swaps was eye-opening, thanks largely to the articulate interviewee doing the explaining, Satyajit Das. (I wanted more clips of him. He was good.) A lot of the interviews were good in the sense that the questions were pointed and had an obvious agenda that they were getting at, painting the interviewees into a corner. They were very skillfully done, but I sometimes felt like the agenda was getting in the way of more information. The film has also been criticized for its scapegoating of individuals instead of examining the capitalist system itself, ala Michael Moore’s Capitalism: A Love Story, and I am inclined to believe that the system is more problematic than the people, although of course the people are absolutely not blameless.