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Bailout (2012)

Breakdown on Paradise Boulevard, Part Two

Everyone on the planet needs to see Bailout, Sean Patrick Fahey's new documentary about the effects of the global financial meltdown on average Americans.

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Even if you don't know a credit default swap from Celebrity Wife Swap, Fahey and star/executive producer John Titus take the audience on an exciting and informative cross-country journey to get at the truth of the housing bubble and too-big-to-fail banks. Fed up with watching supposedly venerable financial institutions have their failed trillion-dollar gambles paid off by misinformed taxpayers, Titus, a Chicago attorney, decides to stop paying his mortgage. He invests some of the money in a used Winnebago, and the rest in a road trip to Las Vegas with four friends. If Bank of America and JP Morgan Chase can blow untold fortunes in a virtual casino, he reasons, why can't they do the same in a real one?

The trip is Fahey's framing device, a hook to get people in the door. The bulk of Bailout consists of various talking heads outlining the federal/industrial collusion that led to a monetary Wild Wild West. When the line between private banks and investment banks was erased, financiers found they had untold reserves of money to play with--in the form of shiny, new home mortgages.

Problem was, most of the mortgages weren't that shiny. Aided by the government's "ownership society" propaganda, an army of banks eager to give home loans to anything with a pulse, and ratings agencies who granted AAA status to bundles of toxic notes as long as the money they were getting was actually green, the one percent rode high on a hog they'd convinced themselves would never end up as bacon.

Those are the broad strokes. Bailout bombards us with a fraction of the minutiae in an effort to keep things relatively breezy and understandable--but the fraud itself is still a gigantic, evil mess. Which is why, I guess, Fahey takes some cues from Michael Moore, occasionally using cartoons, sketches, and puppetry to help the medicine go down. It's cute for awhile, and underscores the fact that the world really is crawling with untouchable 2D villains who just want all the wealth for themselves. But I could have done without multiple scenes of the felt Hank Paulson stand-in, bopping around like an idiot while audio from the bailout hearings played over it. We see enough of the ghoulish former Treasury Secretary in the flesh to understand that he's an empty instrument of lawless industry that metaphors are unnecessary.

Speaking of superfluous, I'm sorry to say that the weakest parts of Bailout are also its strongest marketing points. Though Titus is a fascinating character--a boozy, smoking, genius-type who embodies at once Hunter S. Thompson and Oscar Acosta--his road companions come off as rather dull. This must be a function of editing, because I get the feeling there are decades of cool stories waiting to be told about comedian John Fox, ex-con Ruben Castillo, folk-singing something-or-other Sergio Mayora, and college-loan-attack victim Nicole Erhardt. They're a boisterous, interesting-looking bunch for sure, but on the road they mostly crack each other up with sports anecdotes and the warm, inside-joke camaraderie of long relationships the audience doesn't share with them.

There's promise at the outset, with Nicole telling the well-read Titus that she's a novice when it comes to understanding how the world fell into financial ruin. It's the beginning of an implied story-arc, an education for her and the audience. But aside from her asking one or two questions on the road, the thread goes nowhere. Much more interesting are the brief stories of the people our gang meets between Illinois and Nevada. From middle-class families who fell behind on adjustable-rate mortgage payments to residents of tent cities and a pissed-off, broke celebrity realtor, we get far greater detail about the sights than the sightseers.

It doesn't help that Fahey and Titus take the expression, "it's not the destination, it's the journey" one step too far: the big Vegas climax is a bust, for the audience. It's unclear how many casinos they visited in their three day visit, or if they felt at all guilty about throwing away large wads of cash on roulette wheels and craps games. The entire affair is handled in a brief, bizarre montage that plays more like an ad for the city's decadence than a catharsis for the ninety-nine percent.

Indeed, the only thing our heroes have to show for their troubles is a massive hangover. Their trip is capped by a haunting scene filmed in what looks to be a graveyard for gaudy neon signs. One of Mayora's songs plays over Titus and the rest, who look wistfully at the ornate junk. We even see Ruben break down in tears, but the reason is neither explicit nor implied. I would have loved more back story on each of these colorful characters, rather than bowling montages and left-field trips to the Kentucky Derby and Roswell.

As I said, though, the meat of the film is comprised of testimonials from analysts, lawyers, media types, and victims of Wall Street's excesses. While an outsider might assume Bailout to be a liberal, anti-capitalist polemic, Fahey and Titus make it clear that the world's sinister financial overlords are bipartisan criminals. There's not a caricature or cut-out of George W. Bush on-screen that isn't paired with a Barack Obama avatar. The overall message is that finger-pointing is useless when both hands belong to the same body. The finer idea, sadly, is that all the lower-and-middle-class outrage in the world is useless against a system that refuses to prosecute the people responsible for nearly a decade of egregious and provable crimes.

Though it's not a perfect film, Bailout is a damned important one. It's no coincidence that the movie had its Chicago premiere a few days before the Windy City's NATO summit; the city is bracing for legions of Occupy protesters demanding change and transparency from the show runners. It's perhaps a cosmic joke that Chase CEO Jamie Dimon has come under fire in recent days for his institution's staggering $2 billion (and counting) loss on a big, fancy bet.

Following the headlines, outrage, and social upheaval of four years ago, you'd think there'd be safeguards in place to make sure these things couldn't happen again. But Bailout shows us just how much further we have to go in order to affect real change. The movie ends with a call to arms for the affected, the afflicted, the armchair activists, and the apathetic. Fahey and Titus warn that, short of torches and pitchforks in the street, the only real way forward is to get educated and get involved--whether that means refusing to give another dime to risk-addicted institutions or simply encouraging your friends to march in protest instead of hitting the mall this weekend.

If the odds aren't in our favor, it's up to us to change the game.

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