Jacob Kornbluth’s Inequality for All is — at this moment anyway — my favorite documentary of the year. Insert the usual grumbling about me liking it because it’s leftist and supports my views. I won’t deny that this is part of it — just as those doing the grumbling dislike it because it’s not rightist and doesn’t support their views. (This really is a two-way street, folks.) All the same, agreeing with my politics isn’t the real selling point for the film. It’s the presence of Robert Reich, the political economist who, among other things, served as secretary of labor under President Clinton. Reich — all 4 feet, 10-and-1/2-inches of him — is simply one of the most appealing and charismatic speakers I’ve ever encountered. Spending 90 minutes watching him explain the current economic situation makes for a very pleasant and enlightening experience.
Oh, the film is more than that—there’s more to it than Reich talking—but it’s Reich who sells it. He’s someone you instinctively feel drawn to. Hell, I’d not only like to know him, I’m ready to vote for him for president (unfortunately, I don’t think he’d be interested). I suppose it ought to be beside the point in some intellectual “objectivity” way, but it isn’t. An Inconvenient Truth mayn’t have been better, but it’d be a lot more palatable as an experience if Al Gore wasn’t—well, let’s face it—on the charisma-challenged side. That’s what we get with Reich—charisma in abundance.
It doesn’t make his presentation about the flaws of a society in which the 400 wealthiest people make more money than the bottom 150 million combined any more penetrating or, frankly, scary, but it makes it more accessible. With charts and all that Powerpoint jazz, his ability to draw parallels between what happened in 1929 and 2007 are clear and illuminating. His basic point is lucid and compelling — without a thriving middle class to buy what is being sold, there’s not much in the way of a workable economy. (I now await the arguments against it.) That he argues against the notion that the rich should be taxed less because they provide jobs will not please everyone, of course, but his plain case for how the faltering economy is tied to decreased taxes on the most wealthy is compelling.
The film works on several levels, pieced together from simple footage of Reich talking to an unseen interviewer, at various speaking engagements and in encounters with other people — as well as archive reels and Reich teaching his class at Berkley. (This last will bother some, because it’s a little to reminiscent of the bogus “classroom” footage in Ben Stein’s 2008 pro-Creationist documentary, Expelled, though I’ve yet to see any charges that Reich’s footage is faked.) But again, it’s Reich that makes it work — not in the least because he’s neither condescending nor a doomsayer. He’s a man who honestly thinks he can make a difference. Rated PG for thematic elements, some violence, language and smoking images.
Starts Friday at Fine Arts Theatre