Movie Fact Often More Engaging Than Fiction

Bob Mondello looks at a new documentary about the economic meltdown and examines where it falls in a spectrum of current fact-based films.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.

MARY LOUISE KELLY, host:

And I'm Mary Louise Kelly.

Should you feel the urge to relive the 2008 economic meltdown, you can just head on down to your local cinema. There's the movie "Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps," a fictionalized version of the meltdown. And that's playing now. And opening today, a documentary called "Inside Job."

(Soundbite of documentary, "Inside Job")

Unidentified Man #1: Share prices continue to tumble...

Unidentified Man #2: Lehman Brothers was forced to declare itself bankrupt...

Unidentified Man #3: The largest single point drop...

Unidentified Woman #1: (Foreign language spoken)

KELLY: Well, our critic Bob Mondello says movie fact turns out to be more engaging than movie fiction, at least in this case.

BOB MONDELLO: You can't be a film critic for long without falling in love with the efficiency of documentaries. It took a half hour for Oliver Stone's fictional characters to make audiences indignant about credit default swaps in "Money Never Sleeps." But pretty much any 30 seconds in the documentary "Inside Job" will make you want to throttle the nearest banker, broker or economic analyst.

(Soundbite of documentary, "Inside Job")

Unidentified Man #4: Bear Sterns, Goldman Sachs, Lehman Brothers, they knew what was happening.

Senator CARL LEVINE (Democrat, Michigan): What do you think about selling securities what your own people think are crap? Does that bother you?

MONDELLO: "Inside Job" lays out the missteps of regulators, the greed of hedge fund managers and the showboating of politicians so clearly, I couldn't help wishing it were opening in more than two theaters this weekend.

(Soundbite of documentary, "Inside Job")

Unidentified Man #5: We had a whole group of people looking at this for whatever reason.

Unidentified Man #6: Excuse me, you can't be serious. If you would have looked, you would have found things.

MONDELLO: What's striking about "Inside Job" is the company it's keeping at the multiplex, not just the education documentary "Waiting for Superman" and the war documentaries "Restrepo" and "The Tillman Story" but also next week's unexpectedly riveting "Gerrymandering," guaranteed to make patrons furious at the folks who draw the lines for voting districts.

(Soundbite of movie, "Gerrymandering")

Unidentified Man #6 (Actor): (as character) Willie Brown recalls a gerrymandered district that was once proposed to help him win. At this point, the district was so narrow that it included only one lane and the center stripe of a San Francisco street.

Unidentified Man #7 (Actor): (as character) Picasso would have been proud on the manner in which the lines have been...

MONDELLO: "Gerrymandering" is an advocacy documentary, and its points are, therefore, arguable, I suppose. Panels that draw district lines might well bridle at the portrait it paints of their work. But having a point of view can make otherwise dry-sounding films awfully effective. "An Inconvenient Truth," for instance, which jumpstarted a whole conversation about climate change.

And documentaries are just one brand of fact-based feature. Audiences are currently puzzling out the truthiness of two Facebook flicks. "The Social Network," a true story fictionalized that gets its facts mostly right, and "Catfish," a true story not fictionalized in which you can't believe anything anyone says.

There's also the faux documentary "I'm Still Here," where actors play fictional versions of themselves.

(Soundbite of movie, "I'm Still Here")

Mr. JOAQUIN PHOENIX (Actor): (as himself) Phoenix, Joaquin; Phoenix, P. Diddy.

MONDELLO: And biopics, where actors play real versions of people not themselves, the young John Lennon in "Nowhere Boy."

(Soundbite of movie, "Nowhere Boy")

Mr. AARON JOHNSON (Actor): (as John) I'm going to start a rock 'n' roll group.

MONDELLO: And the woman who owned history's greatest race horse.

(Soundbite of movie, "Secretariat")

Ms. DIANE LANE (Actor): (as Penny Chenery) Secretariat is not afraid, and neither am I.

MONDELLO: And then there is "Howl," which takes a little bit from all those other forms to tell the 1950 story of Beat poet Allen Ginsberg.

(Soundbite of movie, "Howl")

Unidentified Man #9 (Actor): (as character) Would you say that Howl performed by Ginsberg is obscene?

Unidentified Man #10 (Actor): (as character) Yes.

MONDELLO: "Howl" employs actors, including a spellbinding James Franco as Ginsberg to flesh out the poem and the court case surrounding it. It also uses animation to illustrate the poem.

(Soundbite of movie, "Howl")

Mr. JAMES FRANCO (Actor): (as Allen Ginsberg) Supernatural darkness of cold-water flats floating across the tops of cities contemplating jazz.

MONDELLO: Normally, you'd call "Howl" a biopic, not unlike "Nowhere Boy" or "Secretariat," but "Howl" was made by documentarians. And apart from the poem itself, it takes its script almost exclusively from court and interview transcripts. You might call it an acted documentary, not docudrama, more of a significant moment from a life recreated. A biomentary maybe. Whatever. It's a trippy portrait of a time when poetry mattered enough that some people worried it could rend the fabric of a nation.

(Soundbite of movie, "Howl")

Mr. FRANCO: (as Allen Ginsberg) There are books that have the power to change men's minds. The eternal war is here. Let there be no running from non-existent destroyers of morals. Oh, victory.

MONDELLO: If "Howl" is scrupulous about getting its facts right, it doesn't pretend to be complete. Ginsberg's life was messy, and reflecting it too precisely would almost certainly result in messy filmmaking. Does that matter in a story about a real person? Well, I suppose that depends on where you stand.

These days, billionaires like Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg, who refused to cooperate with filmmakers, are likely to discover that filmmakers are perfectly comfortable making things up. And that the public that goes for scripted reality shows and nature films that use trained animals doesn't mind when they do. For patrons as for filmmakers, a good story is a good story. Of course, the facts remain the facts for those who care to know them.

I'm Bob Mondello.

(Soundbite of music)

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The 'Inside Job' Behind An Economic Nightmare

Henry Paulson, Ben Bernanke, Timothy Geithner

hide captionHenry Paulson (former U.S. secretary of the Treasury; from left), Ben Bernanke (chairman of the Federal Reserve) and Timothy Geithner (current Treasury secretary and former president of the Federal Bank of New York) are among the financial-industry veterans featured in Inside Job.

Representational Pictures/Sony Pictures Classics

Inside Job

  • Director: Charles Ferguson
  • Genre: Documentary
  • Running Time: 120 minutes
  • PG-13 for some drug and sex-related material

With: Matt Damon (narrator)

(Recommended)

Clarity and efficiency may not be the sexiest of cinematic virtues, but in Inside Job — Charles Ferguson's rip-roaring, Wall-Street-damning documentary about 2008's global financial meltdown — they sure prove powerful tools. Oliver Stone took the better part of an hour In Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps to make you indignant about the schemers who dreamed up credit default swaps, but pretty much any 30 seconds of interview footage in Inside Job will make you want to throttle the nearest banker, broker or economic analyst.

Ferguson begins with a cautionary tale: Plucky little Iceland, land of volcanoes, hot springs and a blissfully stable economy, foolishly deregulating its banking system, allowing massive borrowing and experiencing a national meltdown — a pristine, easily comprehended case of no checks/no balances leading to no paychecks/no bank balances. Then the filmmakers explore how something remarkably similar was allowed to happen in a more complicated way in this country.

Those who followed media coverage of the crisis as it was unfolding, or who remember Reagan-era savings-and-loan scandals, Clinton-era rule-shredding, and the derivatives-bingeing and subprime-bundling popular during the Bush administration (Ferguson is nothing if not an equal-opportunity castigator) will experience some of Inside Job as a refresher course-cum-history lesson. Still, the filmmaker keeps finding comparatively unexplored niches in the story — asking tenured Ivy League pundits, for instance, why their corporate-lecture-circuit fees haven't raised conflict-of-interest issues either with their universities or with the government bureaus and media outlets that turn to them.

Row of private jets

hide captionA row of private jets serves as commentary on the Wall Street high life.

Representational Pictures/Sony Pictures Classics

A number of the film's talking heads, evidently unused to being challenged, prove their own worst enemies, sometimes even asking that Ferguson turn off his camera when they founder. It's reasonable to ask if the folks the film comes down hardest on are any more to blame than the unchecked system they're working within, but given the enormity of the economic collapse, there's presumably blame enough to go around.

As the film lays out the missteps of regulators, the greed of arbitragers, the hubris of hedge-fund managers, and the ineffectual showboating of politicians, it's hard not to wish it were opening in more than two theaters this weekend — especially since that far squishier Wall Street sequel opened in thousands. Ferguson hasn't much confidence in the notion that the perpetrators can somehow be got rid of. At least not through politics, given that the Obama administration recruited its economic advisers from the very crowd that helped create the disaster. Sheer embarrassment might have an effect, if enough people were to see Inside Job. They won't, so it won't. Still, it's nice to dream. (Recommended)

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