Director: Charles Ferguson
Narrator: Matt Damon
Cautionary tales about how financial deregulation can create chaos in public finances do not come any more powerful than the story of what happened to Iceland. A country that once boasted a high standard of living and low unemployment was devastated when it allowed its public finances to be wrecked by the whims of bankers, bent on making profit for themselves by taking on increasingly risky ventures. So begins this revealing documentary - the winner of the Best Documentary Oscar at this year's Academy Awards - about the global economic crisis that shook the world in 2008.
The director Charles Ferguson pulls few punches in his assertion that those responsible for the crisis should be sent to prison for criminal behaviour. Ferguson is a man who knows about making money. He made millions in the software industry in the 1990s and worked as a scholar and lecturer in some of America's most powerful business universities, MIT, Berkeley and the Brookings Institution. He turned to filmmaking when he realised that no one was planning to make an incisive documentary about American foreign policy in Iraq, and made the award-winning No End in Sight.
After showing the devastation that can be caused by deregulation in Iceland, Ferguson turns his attention to America. He gives a potted history of how Ronald Reagan led the way in deregulating markets and how successive American administrations became bedfellows of the finance industry.
He then backs up his argument that the system itself is corrupt with a series of interviews that reveal just how underhand the elite of the American financial services are. Ferguson deserves immense credit for ensuring that these arguments are put in a way that they are understandable to those with little knowledge of the working of the finance industry. Using the American actor Matt Damon as the narrator is a great touch, given that the Hereafter star is often depicted as the everyman of American film. The explanations can at times be too simplistic for those with an understanding of the market.
And when things do get complicated, Ferguson momentarily gets light-hearted, making a great play of showing that not even the players in the crisis knew exactly what they were doing or how the deals they were making were meant to work. Indeed, the greatest achievement of the documentary is how it shows that financiers were setting up deals that were meant to fail so that they could bet on their failure to make money.
The call for fiscal prudence is also met by an appeal for the financial miscreants to be called to book. Yet as the informative film comes out on DVD, there doesn't seem much hope for major change, which is all the more reason why it's important for filmmakers such as Ferguson to highlight the problems in the system.