Jews Behaving Badly

A Difficult Year for the Chosen People on Screen at Cannes

Good Guy Bad Guy: Eliot Spitzer details others’ wrongdoing in ‘Inside Job.’
Good Guy Bad Guy: Eliot Spitzer details others’ wrongdoing in ‘Inside Job.’

By Ron Dicker

Published June 02, 2010, issue of June 11, 2010.
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The cringe-inducing spectacle of Jews tied to the world financial implosion took center stage at the recent Cannes Film Festival. Even fiction got in on the act.

From investment bankers called out by the documentary “Inside Job” to the haimish yet shady broker played by Frank Langella in the new feature “Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps,” Jews took a public relations beating.

None of these works appears to intentionally highlight Jews. “Inside Job,” Charles Ferguson’s dissection of the 2008 crash, shows abuses perpetrated by bankers and economists of diverse backgrounds. But the Jewish figures stood out for their disproportionate presence.

“In my film and in my observation, this is a very equal-opportunity thing,” Ferguson told the Forward. As for audiences who might be inclined to blame Jews as scapegoats in the financial crisis, he said, “For somebody who’s already a bigot, it’s not going to change their mind.”

A few unexpected images of Jews leave a sour taste. The film points out that Martin Feldstein, a Harvard economics professor who acted as a national policy adviser, endorsed continued deregulation of the financial industry while he made millions as a board member of AIG’s financial products unit.

Frederic Mishkin, an economist and professor at the Columbia University Graduate School of Business, performs a verbal two-step as he is grilled about receiving $124,000 from Iceland’s Chamber of Commerce to write a report praising Iceland’s economy while it was crumbling.

The movie says that other Jews, such as former Federal Reserve Chair Alan Greenspan and some investment bank honchos, declined to be interviewed. So our anger-stoked imaginations fill in their stories. Then, those of us inclined to view the recession as a Jewish disaster are thrown the image of a now-disgraced Eliot Spitzer taking the financial industry to task.

There’s no denying that the on-camera confrontations make good theater. Both Jews and gentiles lost money in the crash. In “Inside Job,” Jewish and gentile finance professionals hem and haw when asked why the public was sold securities that were designed to fail because firms bet on them to fail.

Why, the movie asks, did bond-rating groups give immaculate grades to worthless investments? Why did powerful, smart people we trusted keep pushing for deregulation while Big Money took over government, generating an incestuous job pipeline between the financial sector and Capitol Hill?

Jewish representation among those involved in financial mismanagement plays in the movie like the pink elephant in the room. Seeing it on a huge screen at the world’s most important film gathering made the elephant seem bigger.

Lynn Davidman, a professor of modern Jewish studies at the University of Kansas, pleads for tolerance beyond the cinema. In an interview, she asked, “Can an audience of filmgoers watch a film representing any particular group and use their own judgment to understand that the actions of any one person in a group or several in the group does not necessarily represent all actions of all members in a group?”

One hopes so. If Jews have any feeling of being singled out on film or elsewhere, Davidman added, they should be reminded of the criticism that Catholics hear about pedophile priests and their portrayals on film. Said Davidman of the feeling of collective guilt: “Do Catholics come away with feeling, ‘Oh, my God, are we shamed again?’”

Another film, Oliver Stone’s “Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps,” applies studio sheen to the meltdown. Frank Langella plays Lewis Zabel, who is offered up as a sacrificial lamb for the financial world’s sins. As the global collapse begins, Zabel throws himself in front of a subway train. Langella said the character, created by screenwriters Allan Loeb and Stephen Schiff (and guided by Stone, of Jewish heritage), acts less out of guilt than out of his inability to compete.

“He’s as much of a son of a bitch as the other ones,” Langella said in an interview. “I just think he’s been caught in a bind and I just think in terms of timing, things have passed him by in terms of the game, not in terms of anything else. He doesn’t know how to play the new game. He can’t keep up with it.”

Before his suicide, Zabel dotes on hotshot hedge-funder Jacob Moore (Shia LaBeouf), who is dating the daughter of the released-from-jail Gordon Gekko (Michael Douglas), the “greed-is-good” anti-hero of the 1987 original “Wall Street.”

But even a fatherly relationship with his orphaned employee can’t ease Zabel’s despair at being left behind. Said Langella: “He’s lost his mojo.”

Ponzi-scheming Bernie Madoff provided a potentially bigger target at Cannes. The makers of a quickie Bernie biopic, “Madoff: Made Off With America,” sent out a mass e-mail to the Cannes press inviting them to a photo-op and interview with their B-list cast, including newcomer Paul Cohen as a Madoff look-alike and Tom Sizemore as a character named Vito. The press release announced a day but no time.

On the day advertised, I knocked on the door of the filmmakers’ hotel room, but no one answered.

It’s just as well. One more Jew behaving badly on screen would have been one more too many.

Ron Dicker, who covered the Cannes Film Festival for the 10th time, is a freelance writer based in New York City.

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