The major image of Inequality for All is a graph, superimposed over a suspension bridge to emphasize its distinctive curve. It depicts the disparity in between the income of the average middle class worker and that of the average wealthy person. It hits two peaks, the first in 1928 and the second in 2007, sloping downward throughout the first half of the century before climbing back up in the second half. This is the foundation stone of the documentary’s main argument: the chief cause of America’s current economic woes is this abandonment of its middle class.
It’s not a particularly controversial contention, especially for the left-leaning audience that this movie is most likely to find. While it tries to make a measured argument towards prospective conservative viewers, they are unlikely to be taken in. That’s not the film’s fault so much as it is human nature’s fundamental opposition to change. The recession has brought on a new wave of economically-minded documentaries, all seeking to explain the causes of and prescribe solutions to our dearth of jobs, low wages, and other issues. This doc joins the ranks of such films as Inside Job, Money for Nothing and Capitalism: A Love Story. In such a glut, a movie needs to do something to distinguish itself. Inequality for All tries but is only partially successful at doing so.
The film’s main character and our guide through its subject is economist Robert Reich. Former Secretary of Labor in the Clinton administration and now a popular professor and media pundit, Reich has stepped up his activism ever since the recession hit. Borrowing the conceit of An Inconvenient Truth, Inequality for All structures itself around a series of lectures Reich gives to his class about basic economic subjects, with expositional infographics and vignettes about his personal life and history interspersed throughout.
As a basic primer on topics such as minimum wage, the virtuous cycle of a well-paid middle class, concentration of wealth, corporate personhood and more, the film is quite successful. Reich is a good shepherd, explaining these things simply but without condescension. And he’s backed up by crisp, easily understandable visual aids. Technically speaking, the doc is laudable.
But a doc can’t just inform an audience about something. It needs to do more. Otherwise, what’s the point of watching it when one could just as easily spend its running time doing independent research? Inequality for All attempts to add that kind of emotional core through Reich’s recollections about his life. There’s just enough of him to liven things up a tad. He’s an engaging fellow, always willing to crack wise about his distinctive diminutiveness and full of good cheer. But he doesn’t give the film a true emotional core. Nor do the few other people director Jacob Kornbluth and his crew interview, no matter how heartbreakingly low their income is.
Reich is likable, but that’s not enough. His story isn’t compelling — we don’t need to know what drives him to stick up for the little guy, since it’s not really relevant to the larger subject at hand. Inequality for All functions best as a persuasive piece, and even then, there are better-made docs that serve that same purpose.
Inequality for All is now playing in select cities. For more info, see the film’s official website here.