Charles Ferguson is carving out a notable career for himself making documentaries for people who don’t read a word about current events. No End in Sight, which was nominated for an Oscar three years ago, laid out the circumstances of Operation Iraqi Freedom; it was scrupulous, sober and painstakingly researched—and revealed nothing a reasonably well-informed viewer didn’t already know. Ferguson’s new documentary, Inside Job, does precisely the same for the ongoing financial crisis, and it’s required viewing for anyone who’s never heard the phrase “subprime mortgage.” If you truly have no idea how we got into this mess, and who was responsible, you’ll emerge from the theater outraged—or, at the very least, a whole lot better informed. If, on the other hand, you’ve been paying the least bit of attention to the news since the fall of 2008, Inside Job will likely feel aggressively redundant, like an unimaginative adaptation of various articles from The Economist. You couldn’t ask for a more concise or detailed cinematic précis—the question is, do you need one?
Even if you do, Ferguson’s approach to interviews leaves a lot to be desired. As was the case with No End in Sight, many blameworthy folks refused to talk to him, and we hear about every refusal—always with the clear implication that silence equals guilt. This time, however, Ferguson somehow persuaded a fair number of investment bankers and academic advisors to appear on camera. And, to his credit, he asks them the tough questions. Thing is, he often doesn’t wait for an answer. He just asks something incredibly blunt and pointed, for which the subject is clearly not remotely prepared, lets him/her back up and fill for 15-20 seconds, then cuts away in mid-stammer. Gotcha! This sort of ambush journalism can be emotionally satisfying, but it’s hardly what you’d call fair, and it’s not nearly as potent as, say, Katie Couric allowing Sarah Palin to ramble herself into an embarrassing thicket of undigested talking points. Ferguson’s intentions are good, but he’s one of a number of current documentary filmmakers I’d much rather see writing books.