Ethics Among Thieves

Poor Frederic Mishkin. He was totally unprepared. Confident of his own good intentions – and believing others were too – he didn’t see the ambush coming. Hit with questions to which he didn’t know the answers, he stammered good-naturedly and said that he didn’t know.

Would that all officials – and ex-officials – answered questions to which they didn’t know the answers with Mishkin’s honesty, rather than their usual practiced bluster.

I’m glad I saw the Academy-award winning movie, Inside Job, twice. The second viewing allowed me to reassess the role of Frederic Mishkin, a former Federal Reserve governor and now a professor at Columbia University, one of the interviewees. It changed my view of the movie.

Inside Job, directed by Charles Ferguson, an eminent political scientist with a distinguished background, is a thoroughgoing indictment of the financial industry that has its virtues but relies on some unsavory vices. On the one hand, through interviews, congressional testimony, and other video, the film exposes cronyism, corrupt ethics, and excessive power at the core of the financial industry. On the other, the movie at times unfortunately feels more like a polemic than a hard-hitting, fact-finding investigative reporting piece.

Beware the indignation-jerker

The first time I saw Inside Job, I didn’t like the interview of Mishkin, which made me feel annoyed in the same way as Michael Moore’s Fahrenheit 9/11 once did. I came up with a label for this type of movie and the interviewing tactics that fuel the genre, of which, on first viewing, I counted Mishkin’s interview as an example – “indignation-jerker.”

You’ve heard of tear-jerkers – movies with a maudlin storyline that make you tear up though you know the movie isn’t very good and is just manipulating your tear-ducts. Many people like to see these, because even though they are being manipulated it feels good to have a nice little cry.

Similarly, a lot of people like to see indignation-jerkers, because it feels good to be indignant! Fahrenheit 9/11 aimed to press those buttons – by juxtaposing clips of an apparently clueless President George W. Bush with bombs exploding in Iraq, for example.

One of the things that disturbed me about Fahrenheit 9/11 was that the theater was brimming with cheering indignant theatergoers, while nearly empty was the theater in which I saw a far more intelligent and informative film on the Iraq war, No End In Sight. Indignation-jerking conveys little information or insight – it’s for the already-convinced.

The director of No End In Sight, by the way? Charles Ferguson. Maybe Ferguson learned from Fahrenheit 9/11 that for your documentary to be a box-office hit, it had better be an indignation-jerker.