Inequality for All

Looking at the lists of my favorite films one might be able to guess where I fall on the political spectrum. I'll elaborate and say that my perspective is closely aligned with the social and economic beliefs of Robert Reich, the subject of Jacob Kornbluth's documentary Inequality For All. Like Reich, I'm a white, well-off, coastal liberal who believes I should be paying a lot more in taxes than I currently do. This isn't because I'm a bleeding heart, but because I've never seen any convincing evidence that significantly higher taxes on wealthy and upper-middle-class people would not benefit the country as a whole, including those at and near the top of the economy. I didn't vote for Reich when he ran for governor of Massachusetts in 2002, but if we could elect a national economist to whom the President and Congress were compelled to listen, Reich would get my vote.

My sympathetic bias notwithstanding, I tried to watch Inequality for All with as open a mind as possible, and to evaluate it primarily on its cinematic merit. To that extent, it's only a middling documentary.  Kornbluth relies too heavily on animated graphs, pop songs, Late Night TV clips, and black-and-white stock footage to illustrate Reich's points. True, he uses such gimmicky and dismissible tools to a lesser extent than many contemporary political documentarians do, but any time a serious documentary resorts to clips from The Daily Show to make its arguments, I'm immediately turned off. (At least the Simpsons don't make an appearance.) Also, Kornbluth's interpolations of Reich's personal stories feel awkward and forced. The amusing opening scene, in which the tiny Reich explains how he identifies with his mini-cooper navigating an environment where everything is larger then himself, is more than sufficient. I wish the movie would simply let Reich make his points and be done with it, as opposed to illustrating his arguments with personal stories from average Americans that are suppose to put a relatable human face on the impersonal facts and theories. Indeed this is the third documentary I've seen in two years in which footage of the subject giving a lecture makes me wish I had been watching the lecture instead of the movie. While probably less entertaining, the lecture seems to be where all the really interesting information is.

But a bigger problem with Inequality For All is that its preaching won't sway anyone who's not already in the choir. Kornbluth backs up Reich's points with anecdotal and statistical information that feels all too easy to challenge. For example, while it's interesting to hear the wealthy CEO of a pillow company explain the false promises of trickle-down economics, I'm sure there's another CEO out there who could express the exact opposite opinion just as convincingly.  It's not that I believe all political documentaries have to be "fair and balanced," but I do think a well-presented counterpoint strengthens an argument, and there's not enough of the opposite perspective in this movie for Reich to come back and refute.

Despite his small stature, or perhaps because of it, Reich is reliably engaging and entertaining when he appears on cable news and late night talk/comedy shows. He is a natural subject for a movie but, while I do recommend seeing this film for its very salient points, I wish it had been more forthright not only in presenting the arguments but in challenging them as well. I think they would more than stand-up under skeptical scrutiny.

Directed by Jacob Kornbluth
Produced by Jennifer Chaiken and Sebastian Dungan

With: Robert Reich

Cinematography: Svetlana Cvetko and Dan Krauss
Editing: Kim Roberts and Miranda Yousef
Music: Marco D'Ambrosio

Runtime: 89 min
Release Date: 27 September 2013
Aspect Ratio: 1.85 : 1