The Financial Crisis of 2008 on Film

It’s been five years since the height, or should I say the depth, of the Financial Crisis of 2008, the worst in America since The Great Depression almost eighty years earlier. The collapse, or near collapse, of several national banks and major brokerage houses precipitated the resulting Wall Street crash, which has affected every one of us. For some, it’s been severe and direct, for others it’s been moderate and indirect, but no one has escaped its consequences. At Wall Streetworst, people have become unemployed, been evicted from their homes, lost their health insurance coverage, and/or significant portions of their life savings. Others may have not seen a pronounced change in their current lifestyle, but have been forced to put retirement plans on hold in order to maintain it. Even those who didn’t lose money themselves are still affected by the loss of governmental services, as a result of suddenly lowered tax bases.

The crisis actually began with the bursting of the housing bubble, which peaked in 2006, causing a domino effect on related financial industries.  According to the Senate Financial Crisis Report, 2011 (aka  the Levin–Coburn Report), the meltdown was the result of “high risk, complex financial products; undisclosed conflicts of interest; the failure of regulators, the credit rating agencies, and the market itself to rein in the excesses of Wall Street.” By the time all was said and done, trillions of dollars of personal wealth had been lost by American citizens, and a global financial crisis had been triggered. Despite the far-reaching effects of the downturn, only marginal efforts have been made in terms of (re)regulating American finance, or bringing any of the culprits to justice. Many of us still have a lot of unanswered questions regarding this calamity.

My quick summary above is meant only to be an entry point into this topic. I’m not an expert on high finance, and I don’t pretend to be. If you too are still searching for a better understanding of what happened and why, but don’t have time to trudge through some dry, thousand-page, highly pedantic account of this subject, then I’ve got an alternate route for you. Filmic attempts to explain the crisis began appearing from the earliest days of the debacle. Several first-rate documentaries have been produced that do a stellar job of elucidating the major causes of the crisis. The following titles are owned by the Des Moines Public Library. You can find them among the non-fiction DVDs. They carry a Dewey Decimal number denoting their subject matter (the economy), which in this case is the 330s. If you look for a left or right bias in any of these titles, you’ll likely find one; that’s unavoidable, but each one presents its case in a reasonable, rational manner. As a group, I believe that they cover the main arguments from either side of the American political spectrum.

Maxed OutMaxed Out: Hard Times, Easy Credit and the Era of Predatory Lenders (2006) – Produced and released in the midst of the bursting housing bubble, this doc details how American wealth has been built as a “house of cards” that can’t help but collapse. It makes clear how predatory lenders offer credit cards to those who can least afford to pay them off, making card holders lifelong customers often able to pay only the minimum balance. Too easily acquired home and auto loans are also addressed.

IOUSAI.O.U.S.A. (2008) – Released in late-August 2008, the month prior to the ultimate unraveling of the national banks and investment banking institutions, I.O.U.S.A. predicted the collapse based on various factors at play in the market at the time. Original interviews, with such heavyweight figures as Warren Buffett, Paul O’Neill, Alan Greenspan, and Robert Rubin, lend credence to the filmmakers’ conclusions.

Capitalism: A Love Story (2009) – Populist filmmaker Michael Moore ventures Capitalism - A Love Storyout to show the human impact of the financial meltdown. Moore visits several locales and interviews numerous average Americans whose lives have been upended by corporate greed run amok. Afterwards, he seeks answers to why this can occur in a Democratic society by going to Washington and Wall Street, where governmental leaders and corporate heads are less than forthcoming. In the final section of the film he outlines some strategies for change that have been employed successfully in other Western nations.

Inside JobInside Job (2010) – If you have time to see only one film about the financial crisis, this one is it! Narrated by Matt Damon, Charles Ferguson’s fine overview of the financial crisis won the “Best Documentary, Features” Oscar in 2011. Pointed interviews, well-chosen graphics, extensive research and worldwide locations are used to explain the global economic meltdown in an easily understood fashion. On top of all of that, it’s a surprisingly sleek film for a documentary, with crisp, gleaming photography that suggests the budget of a high-production-value Hollywood movie.

The FlawThe Flaw (2011) – The title derives from a famous quote by Alan Greenspan, former Chairman of the Federal Reserve, in which he admitted before the U.S. Congress that he put too much faith in the self-correcting power of free markets, convincing him not to impose regulation on the then-current risky mortgage lending practices. That flaw, the film contends, is people’s greedy nature and their willingness to swindle people if it means they will profit from it personally. Although the film takes its subject seriously, it also uses selected film clips (especially old cartoon segments) to add humor to the otherwise heavy mix.

Few narrative movies have been made that dramatize the financial crisis. Perhaps the subject is too massive to easily, and successfully, cram into a two-hour window. Or, maybe Hollywood types think it’s too much of a downer to appeal to audiences. In any case, at this time there are only a pair of movies that deal directly with events of that period that I can recommend (several other films, including Up in the Air, The Company Men, and Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps, deal with it only peripherally or incidentally). Find the following titles in our regular DVD collection.

To Big to FailToo Big to Fail (2011) – HBO produced this reenactment of events during September 2008 when there appeared there would be further banking/brokerage house failures in the wake of the demise of Lehman Brothers. William Hurt stars as Secretary of the Treasury Hank Paulson and centers on his efforts to create a federal government bailout that will prevent additional failures and help restore consumer confidence in Wall Street.

Margin CallMargin Call (2011) – Margin Call is an ensemble thriller offering a 24-hour window into an investment bank (read: Lehman) at the height of the financial crisis. It’s more focused on dramatics than on getting details right, but it does provide Kevin Spacey, Jeremy Irons, Zachary Quinto, Paul Bettany and Stanley Tucci ample opportunity to display their considerable talents.