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It’s hardly news that the rich get richer and the poor get poorer, but Inequality for All, the latest entry in the illustrated-lecture school of documentary filmmaking, gets beyond the duh factor, deploying urgent statistics in an even-tempered lesson. Its subject, the abyss-wide, 99/1 income disparity in the United States, has been at the center of a good deal of recent political discourse and name-calling. Filmmaker Jacob Kornbluth acknowledges the anger fueling the Occupy and Tea Party movements, but his chief focus is the litany of hard facts energetically presented by Robert Reich, a public policy professor and longtime Washington insider.
Reich’s modulated outrage is that of someone who not only has worked within the system but who also still believes in it. Whether viewers will share his optimism is yet to be seen, but the compelling clarity of his argument makes the polished film, premiering at Sundance in the Documentary Competition, a shoo-in for small-screen distribution and a solid candidate for niche theatrical exposure.
Like another policy-lecture documentary, An Inconvenient Truth, this one interweaves personal information about its central figure, although in the case of Reich, as opposed to Al Gore, the background material is judiciously used, and far more relevant. Not quite five feet tall, Reich, whose physical growth was affected by the genetic disorder Fairbanks syndrome, is a high achiever given to self-deprecating jokes about his diminutive size. A revelation about a neighbor who helped to protect him from bullies as a child is a fascinating life-story tidbit that ties together the personal and the historical.
As an instructor, Reich is spirited and passionate. At times he speaks directly to the camera; at others he’s addressing the huge lecture hall of undergrads taking his Wealth & Poverty class at Berkeley. With the help of nifty animated graphics by Brian Oakes, he lays out the disheartening/enraging figures, quantifying what’s already clear to anybody who can remember the way things were before they stopped adding up: Middle-class wages are stagnating or falling while the cost of living keeps rising.
At the heart of the film’s argument is the tax-records research of Emmanuel Saez and Thomas Piketty, which draws striking parallels between 1928 and 2007, years in which peak income inequality served as prelude to disastrous financial crashes. To put a face on the great divide — 400 Americans possess more wealth than half the country’s population — Kornbluth (Haiku Tunnel) profiles a few middle-class families in their day-to-day struggles, as well as a venture capitalist, Nick Hanauer, who debunks the “job creator” myth and explains the fallacy of trickle-down theory.
Like most contemporary political dialogue, Inequality for All spends little time on the matter of outright poverty, instead homing in on the middle class. Inspired by Reich’s book Aftershock: The Next Economy and America’s Future, the doc, which began as a Web-series collaboration between Kornbluth and Reich, spells out the importance of the working classes, blue- and white-collar, as the engine of the nation’s economy. His model for a flourishing American Dream of upward mobility is the “great prosperity” of the 1950s through the ’70s — a period of strong unions, government investment in public education and substantial tax rates for those in the upper-income brackets.
Reich, who served in the Ford, Carter and Clinton administrations, possesses an unwavering belief that history is on the side of positive social change. Though he regrets his “failure” to implement all his ideas as Clinton’s Secretary of Labor, he maintains an exuberant trust in the future of policymaking. That trust can feel conveniently vague: He elides key facts about Clinton’s dismantling of social safety nets and key role in the deregulation of the financial sector. And although his thesis points to the need for higher taxation of the wealthy, he doesn’t address the right’s intransigence on this issue.
If Reich’s optimism doesn’t jibe with the political realities of his own experience and his inability to effect change from the inside, he is still asking the right questions. Inequality for All could bring them to a wider audience.
Venue: Sundance International Film Festival (Documentary Competition)
Production company: 72 Productions
With: Robert Reich
Director: Jacob Kornbluth
Producers: Jen Chaiken, Sebastian Dungan
Executive producer: Stephen M. Silberstein
Directors of photography: Svetlana Cvetko, Dan Krauss
Music: Marco d’Ambrosio
Art director: Art Wilinski
Director of motion graphics: Brian Oakes
Editor: Kim Roberts
No MPAA rating, 89 minutes
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