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Sundance Review: Robert Reich thrives in the 'Inequality For All' spotlight
It's like 'An Inconvenient Truth' only more entertaining in every way
There will be a knee-jerk desire to compare Jacob Kornbluth's "Inequality For All" to Davis Guggenheim's "An Inconvenient Truth."
Both Sundance-launched documentaries feature members of the Clinton Administration giving illustrated lectures that attempt to expand issues of vital importance beyond dry liberal talking points.
So far be it for me to break from the expected pack: What "An Inconvenient Truth" was for environmental science, "Inequality For All" absolutely is for economic inequality.
For whoever ends up acquiring and distributing "Inequality For All," there are empirical advantages to that comparison. "An Inconvenient Truth" took in nearly $50 million worldwide, making it the most lucrative PowerPoint presentation in history. It also won a Documentary Oscar in a year that featured Amy Berg's "Deliver Us From Evil," as well as "Jesus Camp" and "Iraq in Fragments."
That's high achievement for a documentary which, if we're being honest, was admirably persuasive, but fell short of any high level of filmmaking.
"An Inconvenient Truth" was a filmed position paper and it will probably be a valuable classroom aid for years to come, but it's not a good movie.
So while "Inequality For All" may deserve its easy linkages to "An Inconvenient Truth," that may also be selling the new documentary short. I'm not going to get into the relative political values of their arguments, but when it comes to artistic values, this isn't a close one.
Kornbluth's documentary is provocative and smart. It's also energetic and fun. It's "An Inconvenient Truth" for economics, but it's also much better. I may with that "Inequality For All" did a bit more, but what it does, it does well.
More after the break...
The biggest qualitative difference between "Inequality For All" and "An Inconvenient Truth" is that "Inequality For All" takes as its central focus a political figure you'd actually want to spend 90 minutes with.
On "An Inconvenient Truth," we graded Al Gore on a very generous curve. Because it was the loosest we'd ever seen the former Vice President, we decided he was likable, rather than just "Likable by Al Gore Standards." We were still being lectured at by Al Gore, but it beat the heck out of other times he'd lectured at us over the years.
No such curve is required when spending 88 minutes with former labor secretary and current UC Berkeley professor Robert Reich. The tone is established immediately when, before the opening credits, Reich sits down behind the wheel of his Mini-Cooper and announces, "I sorta identify with it. It's pretty little. I feel like we are in proportion." Reich, whose physical stature was determined by a genetic disorder, takes his economic theorizing very seriously, but he's also able to poke fun at himself and to find a wry humor in the absurdities of our economic disparities, which find the 400 wealthiest people in the US making more than the bottom 150 million.
The humor carries over into the documentary's jaunty pace, which owes much to Marco d'Ambrosio's score and to animation by Brian Oakes, which is introduced in the credits and carries through to make the ample statistics go down smooth.
The basis for the film is Reich's book "Aftershock," as well as his Wealth and Poverty lecture course at Berkeley. The premise of the course is that while some inequality is both inevitable and serves as an incentive in a capitalist economy, peak economic inequality leads to financial crisis, and financial crisis leads to the diminishing of the middle class, as more people are working more hours for less money and accumulating more debt than ever before. And this is a bad thing for the ultra-wealthy and the ultra-poor alike, even if the pundits on Fox News want to spout about "class warfare."
Reich, who laughingly disputes repeated Fox News claims that he's a Communist or a socialist -- a distinction more than a few talking heads fail to process -- cites ample evidence that the economy is strongest when the wealthiest pay a higher tax rate, that the work force is most stable when unions thrive and that billionaires are buying elections on both sides of the aisle and threatening to cripple democracy as we know it. It has a lot to do with Reich's own work and also with the research of Emmanuel Saez and Thomas Piketty and it needn't necessarily be thought of as "partisan," though it'll be read that way. Reich is happy to remind us that his first government job was in the Ford administration.
Kornbluth, whose previous Sundance films were on the narrative side, tracks Reich's arguments in the classroom and lets him directly address the audience. He follows Reich as he travels the country for speaking engagements and weaves a biographical sketch that lays the foundation for both Reich's personal quest for social and economic justice, but also the relationship with Bill Clinton that earned him his greatest prominence.
The story is then expanded with a slew of smaller stories involving people struggling on either side of the imbalance. We meet several small families that have either lost their modest homes or find themselves with mere pittances in savings accounts, or both. Perhaps more interesting, though, is pillow magnate and venture capitalist Nick Hanauer, who pretty much drops a bomb on the basics of trickle-down economics and expresses incredulity at his meager tax rate. And then there are the bigger stories that have to be included, like the Occupy and Tea Party movements, which Kornbluth mostly dodges, perhaps leaving them for future Sundance docs. [I have my ticket for "99% - The Occupy Wall Street Collaborative Film" on Sunday night. If that doesn't work, maybe I'll try to catch "Citizen Koch." Sundance is nothing if not fond of recurring themes.]
Reich's self-deprecation is hardly limited to his height, as he reflects on his own track record in government. "I do ask myself whether I've been a total failure," Reich muses as he thinks back on the opportunities to reinvest the Clinton Era surpluses into facets of the middle class infrastructure. But even in his regrets, they're more nebulous than tangible. The economic problems Reich is lamenting are problems he also, at least to some degree, predicted years before.
That leads to what is probably my biggest real frustration with "Inequality For All": It proves there's a problem. It won't prove there's a problem for anybody who didn't already know/suspect, but if economic inequality troubles you. "Inequality For All" will royally piss you off, as many a good documentary is designed to do. The end, however, is as feeble a call-to-action as I can recall in a documentary filled with this much umbrage. Reich closes his class by telling them that he hopes they make a difference. The documentary closes by sending viewers to an official website that is currently nearly devoid of content. It's one thing to say "Be aware!" and it's a viable additional thing to say, "Don't let this happen [even if it's already happened]." But if you have a man as engaging and full of ideas as Reich basically steering the entire film, those are hollow, after-the-fact warnings that fail to put interested viewers in position to do anything new or different. Your typically audience member will not be able to raise the tax rate on the rich, nor to reverse the flow of jobs outside of the United States or to step in and prevent both liberal and conservative billionaires from buying elections. The documentary doesn't want to endorse any active movements, nor to propose ways in which a new movement could actively reshape the debate. If this were just a problem documentary, this wouldn't bother me, but it's an advocacy documentary that fails to ultimately advocate effectively. After 88 minutes, Reich will have viewers ready to follow him into battle, but he needs to lead a charge.
"Inequality For All" is a well-made polemic. It's lively and funny and infuriating and Robert Reich is as appealing a presenter as you could hope to find for a crisis that many people might find hard to embrace otherwise. It starts a conversation, but it left me hanging. perhaps Festival exposure will help that conversation continue after the theater lights go up.