Disasters of Greed: Inside Job, Gasland

In Cinemas, FILM

On a basic level, Inside Job and Gasland are about the same thing—the greed of people and the inaction of government. Inside Job is a beautifully made documentary about the 2008 global financial meltdown. Gasland is a rough and ready film about the natural gas industry’s poisoning of America. Inside Job is the Oscar winner—informative, dry, and very cinematic. Gasland is the Oscar nominee—ramshackle, funny, and full of emotional punches.

The basic details of Inside Job were covered by the media at the time, but what this film does is show just how intertwined the various financial industries, government agencies, and academics were, suggesting that there were major conflicts of interest, an enormous amount of greed (does any CEO really need a US$485 million bonus?), and very little logical thinking (what harm can throwing around all this pretend money do?); a lack of accountability on the part of the perpetrators; and how the US Government failed to act before the crisis, even when it was made aware of the possible negative implications, and how it has largely failed to act since.

The film takes Iceland as a case study, demonstrating the fairly short-term negative environmental and disastrous economic consequences of its experiment with financial deregulation and privatisation. The newly privatised banks borrowed ten times Iceland’s GDP for no good reason and were then praised by major accountancy and credit rating firms, while the Government regulators were largely ineffective. And then the country went bankrupt.

We then move to New York, September 2008, and the collapse of investment bank Lehman Brothers and insurance company AIG, and the resulting global financial crisis. The crux of the film is that the crisis was no accident, and indeed, was seen coming by some people. The deregulation of the financial sector started by the Reagan Government, which led directly to the failure of hundreds Savings & Loan companies within a decade, resulted not in the tightening of rules but in further deregulation.

The transactions and inter-relationships of the 2008 collapse are somewhat complicated, but essentially complicity can be levelled at numerous parties—individuals, academics, finance companies, and regulators. The major finance companies demonstrated not just complicity, but extremely cynical commercial practices where the only driver was to make as much money as possible. The downfall was swift and catastrophic. The US Government bailout of the banks and insurance companies didn’t stop the global repercussions. Millions of people worldwide have been affected, yet for some reason there have been no court cases brought. It would appear that no people were responsible for the biggest financial fraud in history. Rather strange.

For a film whose narrative is largely based around the voice-over (a very straight Matt Damon), Inside Job is a skillfully made movie. Clearly there was good money thrown at it; some scenes are luscious, the camera work is great, the graphics are clean and simple, the story and editing expertly paced, and it all looks, well, expensive. I had a bit of a problem with that. There was a lot of information in the film, from both the narrator and the numerous talking heads, that the gloss kind of outshone the absurdity and cynicism of the story. However, it is undoubtedly a strong film, one which effectively simplifies the complexities of politics, people, companies and transactions, and how they conspired to create the 2008 financial crisis—the inside job.

By contrast, Gasland is about as grungy as documentary filmmaking gets, bringing to mind the 2003 film Tarnation. Gasland is the story of director/cameraman/interviewer/narrator/amateur detective Josh Fox as he considers the offer of financial riches he is presented with, in return for allowing some company to explore/exploit his land in search for natural gas. This being the US—and I sincerely hope that the practice doesn’t happen in New Zealand—the gas companies have devised a chemically toxic process for extracting gas from the land.

The method of drilling used is called hydraulic fracturing, where water and chemicals are forced at pressure into rock, forcing the rock to fracture and release the natural gas. Fracking uses at least 596 chemicals, some of which are known carcinogens, and the release of the gas seems largely uncontrollable. Under the last Bush administration, thanks to Dick Cheney and his Halliburton cronies, various laws were passed which essentially sideswiped environmental protection, allowing the mass poisoning of land, people and animals, as watertables, streams, and air became toxic.

One astounding scene of water coming out of a faucet exploding on fire said as much about the damaged environment as anything. But the stories kept coming. And the denials by the gas companies kept coming. And the excuses by the environmental protection bodies about their inability to do anything kept coming.

Fox leaves us at a hearing about an amendment to the Safe Drinking Water Act, which will add some common sense environmental protection to Cheney’s commercial bias/stupidity. Gasland is a grassroots film—made by a concerned citizen in order to gain a greater understanding himself and, in doing so, to inform the wider public. While the overriding message of the film is extremely disturbing, albeit with touches of humour throughout, there is a sense of hope at the end; hope that Gasland will have an impact on the US policy makers and politicians, leading not just to the passing of the amendment but the banning of fracking altogether. The sense of hope is reinforced as the closing credits play out over shots of wind farms, a nice piece of subtle subversion, and maybe the silent last word in the argument.

This two valuable films, similar but also very different, share the same motto: “Sometimes those you have entrusted can’t be trusted to act on your behalf, and man, capitalism can really suck.”

‘Inside Job’, Dir. Charles Ferguson
USA, 2010; 120 minutes
‘Gasland’, Dir. Josh Fox
USA, 2010; 120 minutes