You don't have to know the difference between a credit default swap and a collateralized debt obligation to feel enraged anew by "Inside Job," Charles Ferguson's thorough dissection of the country's economic collapse of 2008.
As he did with his first documentary, the Oscar-nominated "No End in Sight," Ferguson takes an unwieldy topic and makes it accessible -- regardless of whether viewers are already well-versed in it or can't stand to follow every development. But that 2007 film was more specific: a meticulously researched look at the U.S. occupation of Iraq. "Inside Job" is about a financial crisis that has touched every American's life and reverberated around the world. Ferguson's reach likewise is global, featuring stories, footage and expert interviews from Iceland, France, Singapore and points in between.
Still, it's a daunting topic, but with the help of user-friendly graphics and Matt Damon's narration, Ferguson breaks down the meltdown into digestible terms without ever condescending. At the same time, he's managed to make a potentially dry, headache-inducing subject cinematic: "Inside Job" is gorgeous to look at, shiny and crisp with gleaming cinematography. His title sequence, featuring aerial shots of the Manhattan skyline with Peter Gabriel's "Big Time" blaring behind them, starts things out on a catchy, splashy note. (And come to think of it, his opening isn't too dissimilar from the start of Oliver Stone's timely sequel, "Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps.") At the end, though, the image of the Statue of Liberty is a little facile, especially compared to all the complex ideas and discussions that preceded it.
But the film as a whole moves well, too, with pristinely flattering lighting even for the wonky talking heads. Among the dozens of experts he speaks with -- insiders and watchdogs alike -- are billionaire philanthropist George Soros; NYU economics professor Nouriel Roubini (known as "Dr. Doom" for predicting this crisis back in 2006); French finance minister Christine Lagarde; U.S. Rep. Barney Frank, chairman of the House Financial Services Committee; and Eliot Spitzer, who initiated lawsuits against all the major investment banks when he was New York State Attorney General.
Most of them provide information that fuels Ferguson's points and helps build a mounting sense of outrage at the sheer gall of it all -- the complicated structures and unchecked greed that ultimately caused millions to lose their homes and jobs. But some find themselves on the hot seat, with Ferguson asking calm but pointed questions. Former Bush chief economic adviser Glenn Hubbard, current dean of Columbia University's business school, grows so defensive, he snarls: "You have three more minutes. Give it your best shot."
Still other key figures -- including U.S. Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner; Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke; his predecessor, Alan Greenspan; and Larry Summers, President Obama's chief economic adviser -- declined to be interviewed for "Inside Job," which is telling in itself.
Unlike Michael Moore, who tends to insinuate himself into the action so that his audience can see him shaking his fist in disgust, Ferguson stays off-camera: We only hear his voice, and he's a quick and educated questioner.
He's also bipartisan in assigning blame, tracing the country's economic collapse to deregulation of the financial sector that began during the Reagan administration in the 1980s and continued under presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush. The advent of derivatives added risk, as did the rampant practice of subprime lending.
It's all depressing, well-documented stuff. "Inside Job" pulls this information together and into one eye-opening, jaw-dropping package. You may think you don't want to see this. But you should.
"Inside Job," a Sony Pictures Classics release, is rated PG-13 for some drug and sex-related material. Running time: 108 minutes. Three and a half stars out of four.