by David Denby
October 18, 2010
Clint Eastwood’s “Hereafter” begins with a magnificent re-creation of the 2004 tsunami as it hits an unnamed resort town in Southeast Asia. An initially receding ocean returns as a thick, unstoppable wave that surges ashore and rushes down a street, washing away buildings, tossing cars as if they were sticks, and knocking down a French tourist, Marie (Cécile de France), who then gets clobbered by a piece of metal and appears to be sinking to her death. The sequence was brought off with a combination of actual ocean waves, watery turmoil in a film-studio tank, and digital enhancement, and it entirely overwhelms the rather pallid movie that follows. Marie survives and attempts to resume her career as a broadcast journalist in Paris, only to discover that she is haunted by a vision that she had as she came close to dying—a shimmering impression of blurry figures standing in a whitish light. Peter Morgan’s script places Marie’s story between two parallel narratives: In London, Jason, one of a pair of adorable young twin boys (who are played by the twins George and Frankie McLaren), is hit by a truck and killed, and his brother, Marcus, looks for a means of communicating with him. In San Francisco, George (Matt Damon) has exactly the kind of necromantic powers that Marcus requires. George can summon the recent dead just by grabbing the hands of someone in mourning; he sees white light and shadowy figures, too. He’s not a swindler—he wants to provide solace to the grief-stricken. Yet he’s oppressed by his skills, which link him with the dead but leave him no life of his own.
“Hereafter”; Clint Eastwood; Peter Morgan; Matt Damon; “Inside Job”; Charles Ferguson; Documentaries
As George, Matt Damon stays all too faithfully in character. He’s puffy-looking and blockish and he doesn’t have a spark in him, not even a flicker of anger at the strange ability that is destroying George’s life. It’s the first boring performance of Damon’s career, although the bland inertia may not be his fault. The way Eastwood stages the “readings,” they hold no terror for George. After grasping a grieving person’s hands for a second, he makes his report from the netherworld—benevolent messages from the dead, who are eager to help the living with useful advice. Have none of them had any traffic with the Devil? Or even a malevolent thought? The messages are inane. Eastwood clearly wanted to avoid routine scare techniques and the banalities of “atmosphere”—he didn’t want to make a fantastic fiction like “The Sixth Sense.” But the communications with the dead went by without raising a single goose bump on this suggestible viewer’s skin.
Eastwood hasn’t worked out the movie emotionally: Marie, lapsing out of her job, just seems vague, as if she had lost her mind as well as her will to work. Eastwood does better with the twins, who are charming, and he shows a touching sympathy for the difficulties of working-class and middle-class life, giving us brief portraits of the boys’ loving but drug-addicted mother and the helpful foster parents who take Marcus in. The movie has long stretches of pleasant, low-intensity narrative, with people going in and out of buildings and climbing stairs and reading letters, and so on, but it never develops the slightest urgency. Peter Morgan, who wrote such shrewd and worldly movies as “The Queen” and “Frost/Nixon,” seems to have fallen into a trance himself. He first had the idea for the script when he lost a close friend in an accident. “We can be so close to somebody, know everything about them, share everything with them, and then they’re gone and suddenly we know nothing,” he has said. The bafflement that comes with loss is certainly a strong enough emotion to get a story moving, but, by turning to spiritualism, visions, and the afterlife, Morgan has wandered into hokum without illuminating grief. Most of the movie is not about what the dead mean to the living; it’s about having nice little chats with ghosts, and neither Eastwood nor Morgan has the taste for such flamboyant stuff. The two men have accomplished the questionable feat of domesticating the uncanny, and, in the process, they’ve lost their storytelling skills—the coincidences that bring the main characters together by the end are laughably unconvincing.
If the filmmakers’ first folly was to turn to spiritualism, the second was to prop up spiritualism with pseudoscience. Marie journeys to a French mountain clinic, from which the veteran actress Marthe Keller, playing a doctor in a white coat, emerges as some sort of Alpine guru. She tells Marie that many people have experienced visions as they approach death. Marie then writes a book and becomes a fighter, combatting prejudice against the visionary. “Hereafter” begins with a mighty wave but ends in a trickle of self-righteousness.
As the financial crisis gathered steam in 2007, and boiled over in 2008, many of us wondered how a homeowner’s taking out a subprime loan in, say, Stockton, California, could have initiated a crisis that eventually caused banks large and small to fail, the credit markets to seize up, the Treasury Department to bail out A.I.G., Citigroup, Goldman Sachs, and other giant institutions, and millions of people in unrelated industries to lose their jobs. Since then, there have been several films explaining the crisis, including Leslie and Andrew Cockburn’s excellent “American Casino,” and many books, including Roger Lowenstein’s “The End of Wall Street,” Michael Lewis’s “The Big Short,” John Cassidy’s “How Markets Fail,” and Andrew Ross Sorkin’s “Too Big to Fail.” The documentary “Inside Job,” written and directed by Charles Ferguson—who made “No End in Sight,” the best of the nonfiction movies about the Iraq war—doesn’t replace any of those works, but it provides the most comprehensive brief narrative of the causes of the crisis (which was set in motion well before that homeowner in Stockton signed a piece of paper). Many documentaries are good at drawing attention to an outrage and stirring up our feelings. Ferguson’s film certainly does this, but his exposition of complex information is also masterly. Indignation is often the most self-deluding of emotions; this movie has the rare gifts of lucid passion and informed rage.
Apologists for the financial industry talk of rational actors pursuing their interests in ways that may have been greedy but never veered into illegal or unethical behavior. After all, many executives, such as Dick Fuld, of Lehman Brothers, who believed in profit-making instruments like collateralized debt obligations and credit-default swaps, wound up losing their jobs and their companies. Doesn’t that prove their good faith? Ferguson will have none of it. He uses interviews and historical information to suggest that many of the transactions weren’t rational at all. They may have been profitable in the short term, but they were destructive to the companies the executives worked for, and he demonstrates that anyone with common sense and a skeptical view of unregulated financial markets could have seen the dangers coming. None of the senior public officials with an ideological commitment to deregulation, like Alan Greenspan, Hank Paulson, and Ben Bernanke, and none of the investment-bank executives who made hundreds of millions from the C.D.O. boom were willing to speak to Ferguson on camera. So he brings forth the savants who warned of the impending crisis early on: Nouriel Roubini, of New York University, whose musical Persian-Israeli-Turkish-accented English is delightful; and Raghuram Rajan, now of the University of Chicago, who, in 2005, while serving as the chief economist of the International Monetary Fund, delivered a paper warning of the disaster to come in front of an audience that included Alan Greenspan and Larry Summers, and was ignored or criticized for his efforts. Roubini and Rajan, awed by the size of the crisis they were unable to prevent, are now sombre models of contained ego and radiant pride.
Nothing like the same could be said of the academic economists, including Glenn Hubbard and Frederic Mishkin, of Columbia Business School, and Martin Feldstein and John Campbell, of Harvard, who hem and haw and evade the simplest questions about conflict of interest or bad advice. Ferguson, interviewing them from behind the camera (Matt Damon narrates the film), questions them with increasing exasperation, and, one after another, the academics disgrace themselves. Ferguson finds a hero in none other than Eliot Spitzer, who prosecuted fraud in the financial industry in 2002. Five years ago, expensive evenings with hookers and drugs were part of the exhilarated Manhattan madness of the investment-banking life. The underlings who procured such services—hiding the costs in phony expense chits—could now be flipped and forced to testify against their bosses, who may be guilty of much more consequential malfeasance. With perfect tact, Spitzer says that he might not be the most appropriate person to suggest such a course for prosecutors. But he suggests it nonetheless.