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The indefensible ins and outs of an 'Inside Job'

When writer-director Charles Ferguson accepted the best-documentary Oscar last month for Inside Job (2010), he observed that "three years after a horrific financial crisis caused by massive fraud, not a single financial executive has gone to jail, and that's wrong."

The movie, released this week on DVD and Blu-ray, contains a lengthier version of that indictment. When hundreds of savings-and-loan institutions in the United States collapsed in the 1980s and 90s, at a cost to the government of $124-billion, hundreds of executives were convicted of looting their companies and were sent to prison. Yet the bankers and others whose actions contributed to the 2008 global financial meltdown, which cost trillions of dollars, walked away with lavish bonuses or have gone to work for President Barack Obama. It might be hard to nail those who were culpable, but shouldn't the justice system at least try?

The movie works on three levels: as a primer on how the meltdown happened; as a denunciation of those who put greed ahead of service, and as a tool for raising the blood pressure. One damning detail follows another, narrated by Matt Damon in a level tone that leaves viewers to do the shouting.

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The executives and officials who precipitated the crisis and benefited while the system tottered are present mainly in archival clips. Ferguson asked to interview them; they said no. Among those absent is Alan Greenspan, who as chairman of the U.S. Federal Reserve Board in 1998 helped quash a proposal to regulate derivatives, the complex financial instruments that eroded the system's stability. He was a cheerleader for the 1999 Gramm-Leach-Bliley Act, which cleared the way for banks to gamble their clients' deposits on high-risk investment banking.

In October of 2008, Greenspan conceded at a congressional hearing that trusting lending institutions to regulate themselves was a flawed approach. No kidding. But when Ferguson came calling, Greenspan wasn't willing to chat about the limits of ideology or other lessons he had learned.

One of the few figures prepared to defend the indefensible was Scott Talbott of the Financial Services Roundtable, a lobby group for the financial industry. Looking uncomfortable but determined to earn his pay, Talbott says that if he were grading the boards for the way they compensated executives for their performance, he would give them a B.

Well, Ferguson asks off-camera, what about Stanley O'Neal, the CEO who left Merrill Lynch in such bad shape in 2007 that the securities firm had to be absorbed a year later by Bank of America, but whose board let him resign with $131-million in stock and $30-million in cash? "That's a decision that that board of directors made at that point," Talbott says. But he wouldn't necessarily give it a B.

By default, those who appear in new interviews are professors and others who criticized the excesses and tried to warn everyone about the risk of fraud and economic collapse.

At times Ferguson tries to pack too much into the frame, as with his pitch for greater funding of public universities. But he has managed the feat one hopes for with films such as this: conducting exhaustive research into a complex subject and presenting it in a form that's easy to digest without appearing simplistic.

That doesn't mean he can't reduce the crisis to a sound bite. "In fact, it's really quite simple what happened," he says in a bonus feature. "It was a bank robbery ... committed by the president of the bank."

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