When the synopsis for Money For Nothing: Inside the Federal Reserve says it’s a balanced film, I’m sure they don’t mean that it has an equal measure of elements meant to turn me on to a documentary and elements to turn me off. That’s thinking of it rather subjectively on my part because of what my own likes and dislikes are, but overall this is also objectively a very middle-ground work that doesn’t seem to strive to be too remarkable while also not doing anything terribly wrong either. I’ll save you the work of having to scroll down this page if you want the easy evaluation: it gets a balanced grade, too, as in just plain average.
I’ll start with the bad, just to get it out of the way and because it comes mostly at the beginning. The film starts up with one of those awfully cliche man on the street montages that selectively makes Americans look dumb yet means to just show that there is indeed an ignorance regarding the film’s subject or issue. Fair enough. In this case that subject is the Federal Reserve, a very misunderstood or entirely unknown entity. Fortunately, the MOS device passes quickly without return. Still, why have it at all? To promptly indicate who this film is for? Just be for who you’re for, and hopefully that audience will tune in.
Another pet peeve is the film’s use of a Daily Show clip astutely making fun of the subject matter instead of the filmmakers devising a joke or point of their own. It’s one thing to include bits of pop cultural relevance like that for the sake of recognizing the subject’s significance in the world, but this specific instance is lazy recycling more than it is illustrative of anything of necessity. There are other clips later that do provide such context. And you don’t need very many unless you’re really reaching for light entertainment value.
That brings up a part of Money For Nothing that did appeal to me: entertaining clips from Buster Keaton and Frank Capra movies. It’s hard for me to dismiss a documentary that goes there. Keaton especially can, admittedly, be a gateway to anything for me. Yet I don’t see why that material nor any of the classic cartoon footage similarly interspersed throughout is brought in, except to cater to those of us who love movies by employing easily recognized or familiar kinds of visuals. One example is the bank run scene from Capra’s American Madness. It’s not a very well-known movie, but it does look iconic enough to seem so.
This method works much better when the sampled classics are directly addressed, as with scenes from It’s a Wonderful Life. Everyone has seen that, so even if this plan comes across as being too dependent on dated cinema classics as support, the Capra film’s banking subplot can still provide an entry point through which the documentary explains parts of the economy and the recent financial crisis in particular. It’s an effective means of reaching the laymen audience, and with its consistent Jenga tower as allegory motif Money For Nothing is anything but subtle and obviously trying to play incredibly broad.
In spite of taking that dumbed-down approach in general, though, writer-director Jim Bruce has at least assembled a good amount of respectable talking heads, through whom he fills the documentary with real substance wherever it’s not being host to the fluff and relying on the extensive expository voiceover narration spoken by actor Liev Shreiber. There are former chairmen and vice chairmen of the Federal Reserve and former executives from a number of its 12 banks. There are well-credentialed economists. And there are other financial experts with academic and/or first-hand knowledge of how the systems work in theory and practice.
The thing about these kinds of interviewees is they don’t often speak in a way that the everyday American can understand. So, the film might be intended for and woo the commoners with amusing samples and licensed archival goodies but that audience will still encounter a lot of material that’s over its head. I know, because I’m one of that crowd when it comes to this subject matter and regardless of how many documentaries I see I’ll never feel like I completely get it all.
But where details can be complex and therefore elusive, grander themes that are common within the economy doc genre, almost to the point of redundancy, are as clear as ever here. In giving us a tour of the history of the Federal Reserve, Bruce chronicles the distinctly comprehensive ups and downs of the economy that have occurred since the central bank’s inception (in 1913, making this film a commemorative tie-in to the 100th anniversary) with focus on all the bubbles and balloons that peaked and burst. It’s probably simplistic to view it this way, but between that shapely pattern and the absurdities of currency not being backed by any valued metals and of terms like “cheap money” uttered over and over, the whole system can come across as a total joke in a film like this.
That seems ironic to me given that Money For Nothing made me think a lot about the old educational documentaries that were made to inform rather than expose or critique or investigate or even really explore. Imagine a mid-20th century film about the Federal Reserve, something that wouldn’t have a witty sort of title like this but maybe could use the subtitle. Actually, 1947’s Using the Bank, which was produced by the Encyclopedia Britannica’s film unit, is a good example, so imagination isn’t necessary (watch it here). Is it possible or desirable for there to be a comprehensive, authoritarian film like that, which tells us about the Federal Reserve instead of casting it as the star (villain?) of a nonfiction tragicomedy?
Whether we’re to learn or be provoked, a documentary on the Federal Reserve requires a more sober tone. Money For Nothing doesn’t just take us inside, it brings us along for a joyride aboard a colorful tank on the offensive. The film asks some important questions about how the central banking system of the US contributed to recent and previous financial downturns, and it even offers some strong points on the matter, but it’s not a serious work and therefore doesn’t have much weight in the end. Could Bruce have reached the wide public audience he seeks without such an accessible romp through the issue at hand, trusting the arguments to be of interest on their own, regardless of how deeply understood they are? Maybe not, but I wonder if the film as is will reach and engage regular folks on a level of reasoning that’s necessary for its goal, either.