Is it by design that the title and subtitle of Jim Bruce’s documentary “Money for Nothing: Inside the Federal Reserve” indicate the relationship between style and content in the film? “Money for Nothing” — you recognize that. It’s the title of the Dire Straits hit from 1985. An interview subject quotes it at one point. The subtitle declares rather than alludes. It is what it is, as Bill Belichick (that gridiron Ben Bernanke) would say, bluntly informing you what the movie is about.
So rock ’n’ roll sexiness, of a sort, is the documentary’s style: jokey graphics, clips from cartoons and movies, shots of falling wooden blocks, that sort of thing. Which is an understandable (if distracting) response to the movie’s decidedly non-visual subject: Central banking systems are nearly as opaque, and hard to understand — let alone visualize — as they are important.
The best thing about “Money for Nothing” is the many talking heads trying to explain what monetary policy is and what the Fed does: controlling the supply of money and, with any luck, guiding the economy. These bankers, economists, and Wall Street types may not always agree, but they are almost always crisply opinionated and informative. The film doesn’t trust them to hold viewers’ interest, though, hence the many attempts at zippy presentation (right down to including clips from “It’s a Wonderful Life”).
The documentary opens with the Great Recession, then jumps back in time to give a history of the Federal Reserve System. The Fed observes its 100th birthday in December. The closer we get to the present, the more “Money for Nothing” becomes a matter of personalities. Paul Volcker, Fed chairman from 1979-1987 who famously fought inflation, is seen as a hero. Alan Greenspan, Fed chairman from 1987-2006, is seen as far too protective of Wall Street and averse to regulation. Bernanke, Greenspan’s successor, is seen as a lesser Greenspan— though if Greenspan’s policies helped enable what happened in 2008, Bernanke’s kept what happened in 2008 from becoming vastly worse.
“Money for Nothing” accepts the Fed as a necessary evil (Ron Paul might put it in his Netflix queue, but pretty far down). It just wishes the evil were a lot less. The split between style and substance that defines the movie mirrors a similar split in its argument. The cool assurance of Liev Schreiber’s voice-over, and he’s very good, can’t disguise how conflicted “Money for Nothing” is.