Wednesday, March 23, 2011

The crash and after

Forgive me, I must start by pointing out that three years after our horrific financial crisis caused by financial fraud, not a single financial executive has gone to jail, and that’s wrong.” So said Charles Ferguson accepting the 2010 Oscar for ‘Best Documentary’ for his film Inside Job.

The biggest global financial crisis after 1929 has spawned a number of books, but strangely, it has not inspired too many films. America’s film-makers, it seems, have not taken to it the way they have other momentous events such as Vietnam, 9/11, Iraq and, lately, Afghanistan. Perhaps, it is also because they feel that any analysis of the subject would end up partly blaming the homeowners — in this case, the movie-going audience — for the crisis, and naturally Hollywood studios don’t want to alienate their consumers.

Inside Job is one of the few films on the subject. But this is no gloom and doom story: instead of grainy images of the stock market crash, Ferguson begins with the sylvan locales of Iceland, once hailed as a safe financial bet, and proceeds to strip bare the layers of mystery surrounding the economic recession.

Matt Damon’s stern but sensitive voiceover strings together Ferguson’s interviews with Eliot Spitzer, Nouriel Roubini, financial lobbyists, university professors, journalists, bankers and writers. Most film-makers would have baulked at using too much financial jargon, but not Ferguson. Here credit must go to the graphics that make exotic derivatives such as credit-default swaps and collateralised debt obligations comprehensible to the layman. Ferguson’s research is evident in every frame.

What brought things to such a pass is better explained in Michael Moore’s Capitalism A Love Story (2009). But while Inside Job is a sprawling study of corporate greed, this one is a stab at the very pillar of US corporate culture, epitomised by the famous Gordon Gekko line from Wall Street: “Greed is good”. Moore is, of course, his rabble-rousing self when depicting Wall Street and Washington as cohorts (“Government Goldman”) but he introspects by harking back to Franklin D Roosevelt’s idea of a near financial utopia in 1936. For Moore, Ronald Reagan is the man responsible for Wall Street’s decadence. The documentary’s high point is its conjuring up of a hole in a dam that finally opened the floodgates, as happened in the fall of 2008.

While war movies have a set template, there is no formula for films on the economy. Charlie Chaplin’s Modern Times is perhaps the most definitive Great Depression film and the “run on the bank” was last seen in 1946 in Frank Capra’s It’s A Wonderful Life. Ever since, Hollywood has been celebrating the Great American Dream.

Thus, the two recent Hollywood flicks on recession need to seen with greater consideration. Wall Street 2: Money Never Sleeps (2010) is a sequel to the 1989 hit Wall Street and centres around Gordon Gekko, out after 20 years in jail. His handphone is now sleeker compared to the brick he brandished earlier, but that remarkable snarl is intact.

While the first half breezes through with Shia LaBeouf and Douglas talking financial argot on New York streets and Josh Brolin’s spirited performance, the second half gets all gooey with Douglas trying to patch up with his daughter, Carey Mulligan.

The other release, The Company Men (2011), is Hollywood’s somewhat ironic take on Luke’s Gospel: “Blessed are the poor; woe to the rich”. The plot centres around three high profile executives — Ben Affleck, Chris Cooper and Tommy Lee Jones — going through a career low. It’s tough to empathise with someone like Affleck who has led a hitherto charmed life with a $110,000 salary and now must take up a $10-an-hour job to bring food to the table. Who in his right frame of mind will give a toss about Cooper not having the money to send his daughter backpacking to Italy?

This may seem decadent to most viewers, but the fact remains that Cooper and Affleck represent an aggrieved lot. At the nadir of the recession, only the CEOs could keep their heads above water. Those in the middle level were left in the lurch. Somewhere in the three lives shown in The Company Men lies a parable for those spewing venom at white-collar employees: These people might not be good, but they are not all bad.


Post a Comment

<< Home