Thursday, September 26, 2013


With the economy still struggling, it’s a shame that many are so fundamentally misinformed, content to coast on bumper sticker slogans and free floating generalized dissatisfaction, especially when many of those people happen to be stagnating in Congress or bloviating on 24-hour cable news. And so it is most welcome to find that Inequality for All, moderately snarky title aside, is about as warm, clear-eyed and accessible an economics documentary you could hope for. Its zippy, comprehensive approach outlines the economic history of the United States in brisk, smartly told ways, showing the factors that led to periods of growth and decline, elbowing past empty political rhetoric to get at the kinds of sensible, fact-based, empathic solutions that just might save us yet.

Our host is Robert Reich, professor, economist, author, and Secretary of Labor under President Bill Clinton. He may be 4’11’’, but his presence in this film looms large. He’s the kind of guy who is impressively intelligent, a perception made all the more impressive for how lightly and humbly he wears his considerable smarts and how easily he makes complicated issues digestible for the masses. That’s not to say he dumbs down the material. Rather, he allows, with a relatable relaxed tone and an unexpectedly humorous tickle in his talking points, an audience to reach and grasp concepts that turn out to be not so intimidating at all. This is a film of facts and figures, charts and graphs, and heaping helpings of economic history, but it never once feels confounding. It also helps that it never feels misrepresented. Reich isn’t out to demonize individual political actors. He simply and patiently outlines the facts, lamenting political stubbornness and cynicism while promoting understanding and empathy as cornerstones of economic policy.

Through appealingly designed graphics – like a souped-up PowerPoint presentation – and cutaways to talking head interviews and human interest anecdotes, director Jacob Kornbluth surrounds Reich with the kind of shiny issue picture gloss that helps illuminate key points. Slick to a fault, and sometimes boring cinematically, this is never less than a fantastic edutainment package. It lays out the undeniable fact that in the last thirty years the rich have gotten richer, the poor have gotten poorer, and the gap between the two has grown staggeringly cavernous. Because this trend matches up so perfectly with Reich’s career as a prominent thinker on such matters, a framework of his biographical information provides a nice background layer, fleshing out what otherwise would have only been an incredibly charming host. Reich becomes not just a guy with the knowledge to impart, but a thoroughly humanized expert who makes for pleasant company.

Built around his “Wealth and Poverty” course at U.C. Berkeley, the film is a lecture in the best sense of the word. It’s conversational, welcoming, and professorial in a relatable, even entertaining, way. This could all have been so heavy handed, sad and pessimistic. But because Reich is both so knowledgeable and seems so upbeat in the face of a dreary economic present, the film takes on his charge of hopeful energy and erudite insight. Our country’s path towards a more equitable financial future is ready and waiting, he says. We simply need the political will and societal urging to get us moving in that direction. 

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