Sometimes, when attempting to communicate the nuances of a big issue, it helps to have a spokesman—a kind of guide to the facts and figures, a personable personality—walk audiences through the information. (See: An Inconvenient Truth, which did as much for global-warming awareness as it did for Al Gore's public image.) The flip side of this strategy is that it risks turning an exposé or polemic into a vanity project, and viewers alienated by the “host” end up tossing out the baby with the bathwater. (See: just about all of Michael Moore’s later films, which find the stunt-loving provocateur doing a disservice to his own journalism.) Inequality For All, a Sundance-approved documentary about widening income disparity in America, both benefits and suffers from the presence of a big thinker at its center. As easy as it is to be intellectually seduced by the man’s arguments, it’s also hard to avoid wishing that his own cult of personality—his jokes and his history—didn’t dominate so much of the running time.
The big thinker here is Robert Reich, bestselling author and former Labor Secretary under Bill Clinton. First seen climbing into his Mini Cooper—an odd image to open on, given the film’s professed empathy for those living below their means—Reich comes across as conversational and level-headed, qualities that make him well-suited to the role of mouthpiece. He teaches a class at Berkeley, and like the Gore movie, Inequality For All uses the lecture format as a conceptual backbone. Thankfully, the filmmaking is slightly more dynamic than a glorified Powerpoint presentation. As Reich narrates, explaining in clear terms the conditions that caused the current abyss between the haves and have-nots, director Jacob Kornbluth interviews citizens on both sides of the divide. The film’s defining image is a bell graph, which neatly demonstrates how the two greatest moments of economic crisis in U.S. history—the Great Depression and the 2008 financial collapse—coincided with the largest disparity in wealth. Meanwhile, scary statistics fly fast, with Kornbluth soberly informing viewers that about a quarter of the nation’s kids born into poverty won’t get out of it and that the country’s 400 wealthiest people have more money than half the U.S. population combined.
As a primer on its topic, Inequality For All is informative, plainly argued, and—in some of its more poignant anecdotes—suitably enraging. (One of the film’s shrewder moves is having a wealthy entrepreneur debunk the defensive rhetoric of his fellow one-percenters, exposing the fallacy of the “job creator” myth.) And whenever he’s simply elaborating on the state of the (abused) system, Reich provides a valuable, authoritative voice for the project. The problem is, Kornbluth also turns his movie into a kind of mash note to Reich, pausing to allow his loquacious subject to reminiscence about his days in politics and tell lots of self-deprecating jokes. (Reich frequently uses his small stature, a symptom of Fairbanks Syndrome, as an icebreaker.) At best, these indulgent detours feel like distractions from the meat of the material. At worst, they make Inequality For All feel occasionally like an advertisement for the gospel of its financial guru. In short—no pun intended, promise—the closing call to action should not be, “Buy and read Robert Reich’s books.”