By Akash Shetye, contributing writer
“Boom Bust Boom,” a documentary concerning the 2008 financial collapse, would probably play better as an introduction to an economics course than as a standalone film. In 75 minutes, directors Terry Jones (of Monty Python fame), Bill Jones and Ben Timlett interview leading economists to uncover the causes, historical context, costs and lessons of the recession. Sadly, the cinematic medium’s limitations- such as runtime constraints and entertainment demands-undermine their hard work, leaving more questions and confusion than answers and clarity.
Whatever their work’s weaknesses, though, the filmmakers deserve credit for how much information they pack into this film. Through interviews and research, they explain the history of economic crashes, how they’re common, how they’re caused by overconfident economists, businessmen and politicians who ignore the past and how this pattern repeats itself. As the film proceeds, they reveal how the 2008 crash aligns with this vicious cycle, one that must be broken to avoid the next recession.
It’s a breathtakingly complex argument. But as the film develops, cracks begin to appear. For example, when comparing historic crashes, the filmmakers discount how certain crashes are more different than alike, how some seem to result from just poor economic foresight while others seem to be influenced more by external factors-like war or health scares. Instead, the film mostly treats these crashes as merely the products of economic overconfidence. Similarly, the interview subjects insist that none of 2008’s leading economists predicted the crash because of their inability to understand the cycle of collapse. However, the film offers little evidence, like videos or writings of economists, to illustrate this; instead, it generally supplies clips of politicians pacifying the public by claiming economic stability.
I don’t mention these oversights to nitpick but as these lapses pile up it becomes difficult not to feel uneasy with an argument that falls rather short of being sound. Too often, you raise objections to the information presented or wonder what else the filmmakers missed. In other words, “Boom” doesn’t stumble because its argument is wrong but because it isn’t holistic.
I sadly suspect that part of what holds the film back might be the boundaries of the film medium itself. Cinema, with its limited runtime and entertainment obligations, struggles when faced with making rigorous, disciplined and heavily factual arguments. This goes double for a film that just clocks in at just over an hour. You don’t need to poke holes in its arguments to see this. The film contains many comedic moments involving visual tricks, which are hit or miss. But even when the jokes land, the laughter dies once you realize that it distracted you from the interviewees’ information.
Part of you, then, wants to cut some slack for “Boom Bust Boom” for not transcending its medium’s own limitations. But cutting slack misses its exact failure. One chilling point that interview subjects make is that past crashes, their effects and causes are often simplified into historical footnotes, and thus forgotten. By failing to present its argument in the best way possible, “Boom Bust Boom” dooms itself to the same fate.
“Boom Bust Boom” opens in New York March 11, and appears on nationwide VOD March 15.