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Inside Job, Cool It

How much are current documentaries telling us what we want to hear?

By Scott Renshaw
 Inside Job
Posted // November 12,2010 - I don’t know about you, but I’m not sure I know what the word “documentary” means any more. I can look it up in a dictionary and see that the word “objective” is there, but we all know that’s nonsense, right? Certainly there are some nonfiction films, like those of Frederick Wiseman, that primarily observe people, or those nice, inoffensive nature documentaries. But even Wiseman acknowledges that the hand of the filmmaker renders any idea of “objectivity” meaningless.

So what do we expect from nonfiction filmmaking in the 21st century, where the genre has been dominated in recent years by films with a particular political or social ax to grind? And how can we honestly evaluate their merits when so much of our reaction comes from the extent to which we’re predisposed to believe what they have to say?

Inside Job, from director Charles Ferguson (No End in Sight) takes on a subject about which he can be plenty “documentary,” in the sense of providing documentation. As narrated by Matt Damon, the film explores the world financial collapse of 2008—and it’s an ugly picture of unregulated financial institutions run amok, and all the supporting players who also were making too damned much money to worry about what might happen if an economic bubble were based on brokerages selling worthless mortgages as though they were gold, even as they were betting that those mortgages would fail.

Ferguson is hardly the first person to try to provide a layperson’s perspective on this complex mess, either in film (following Michael Moore’s Capitalism: A Love Story) or in print—but he does one of the most efficient jobs at summarizing the key points. From the securities-ratings agencies who gave a thumbs-up to shaky derivatives to the academic economists who are making plenty of side cash by propping up whatever the highest bidder wants to hear to the government officials merely making temporary stops between stints at Goldman Sachs, there’s plenty of well-deserved—and well-documented—blame to go around.

But while it’s undeniably informative and solidly constructed, it’s also the work of a filmmaker who doesn’t even bother disguising the incredulity in his voice when his interview subjects provide ridiculous answers, or get flustered or angry when challenged. Here, Ferguson plays our surrogate, the guy shaking the cages of the jagoffs who got away with millions while leaving the rest of country shellshocked. And as cathartic as those moments may be, they make it harder to focus on how little his words are needed when the perpetrators are more than capable of hanging themselves with their own.

Yet Ferguson is still more effective in his cinematic journalism than Ondi Timoner is in Cool It. Taking a break from her fly-on-the-wall documentaries like Dig! and We Live in Public, Timoner introduces us to Bjorn Lomborg, a Danish researcher who became a focus of controversy after his book The Skeptical Environmentalist made the case that even if manmade global climate change were real, the conventional-wisdom proposals for addressing it were far too expensive for the benefits that would be realized.

The boyish, exuberant Lomborg is a natural as a film subject, and his outside-the-mainstream ideas are certainly intriguing on the surface. But Timoner’s approach bears more than a passing resemblance to Davis Guggenheim’s An Inconvenient Truth, and not just because we spend a fair amount of time watching Lomborg give a PowerPoint presentation. Cool It turns out to be fairly straightforward hagiography, an opportunity to let Lomborg lay out his ideas unchallenged for 90 minutes—which might have been acceptable if Timoner hadn’t spent the early part of the film making it clear how many of his peers seem to think he doesn’t know what he’s talking about. We even get scientist Stephen Schneider, who initially is shown berating Lomborg, serving up quotes that seem to back up many of Lomborg’s points. Whatever the challenges may be to Lomborg’s methodologies or conclusions, we get no sense of what they are here.

But that’s the frustrating reality of contemporary nonfiction filmmaking: You’re getting a lot of talented film artists telling what clearly might be only the part of the story they want to tell, or the part they think we want to hear.

Rated PG-13


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Scott Renshaw

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Posted // November 12,2010 at 17:25

Convince me:

-that climate change is unstoppable warming

-and convince me that all the denial scientists are dishonest.

Until then, (unless I’m swimming down my street in a Canadian winter), I’m a Green Liberal Climate Change Denier.

The new denier actually is a climate change believer who still thinks voter support is still there.


Posted // November 12,2010 at 09:51

One thing that can not be underestimated is filmmakers' attempts to supplement the record, so to speak. The corporate media functions as 24/7 propoganda for the status quo, never asking really fundamental questions like, "Do global poverty rates suggest that capitalism is a failure?" for example. That being the case, it doesn't bother me that liberals have dominated the documentary market for some years. These films should be critiqued in their context. They are not the first or last words on their subjects, merely contributions, and often reactions to conventional wisdom that's been installed in people's minds by cable news, et al.

I believe strongly in a pluralistic media environment, where different journalists assess situations from different points of view. "Bias" is really only bad if the bias leads the journalist to--intentionally or not--bend the facts to fit his or her agenda or narrative. But if the facts are solid and the facts just so happen to match the filmmaker/journalist's bias, we can't blame the journalist for that.


Posted // November 12,2010 at 10:12 - I'm not familiar enough with Lomborg to say, but if his usual treatment in the media is derision and tear-down, then a lift-him-up piece might be interesting (I'm thinking of Hugo Chavez as a parallel). But if the FoxNews or CNNs of the world play Lomborg's views without much criticism, then this filmmaker should have dug in deeper.


Posted // November 10,2010 at 13:40

"But even Wiseman acknowledges that the hand of the filmmaker renders any idea of “objectivity” meaningless." Gross overstatement in my view. Pure objectivity may be a myth, but it remains an ideal to strive for in journalism, in history writing, and of course in documentary film. The key is to be savvy to the bias of the writer/creator and to pay attention to alternate sources of information.