Gilbey on Film: drama out of a crisis

Why have movies - documentaries aside - been so slow to respond to the credit crunch?

Is there anything left for a documentary film to say about the financial crisis after Inside Job, Capitalism: a Love Story and Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room? David Sington's The Flaw proves that there is.

The picture draws its title from the words of former Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan, who told the US Congressional Committee: "I have found a flaw in the model that defines how the world works. I was shocked." Greenspan overestimated the self-stabilising ability of the free markets, and pumped funds into the economy whenever it showed a hint of waning; "Boosting economic activity is just a euphemism for trying to encourage consumers and businesses to borrow more," says the film's executive producer Stephen Lambert.

The Flaw takes as its focal point the fluctuating level of income inequality since the 1920s, and shows through personal testimony and fluid graphics how the gap between rich and poor in the US widened immediately prior to the most recent crisis; this resulted in a situation where the majority of wealth went to a minority of citizens. That's $700bn shared among just 15,000 Americans, according to the film.

It's very lucid also on how financial inequality has reflected and exacerbated its social equivalent -- the way a moratorium historically on bank loans to African-Americans or Asians helped create ghettoes for those communities (and, in turn, shaped the largely white suburbs). I learned a lot from the film, and never felt my tear ducts were being gratuitously squeezed; when Sington does deviate from his (formidable) collection of financial experts and into case studies, there are few of the manipulative tricks so beloved of Michael Moore. Just the facts, ma'am.

That said, I could do without the supposedly comical archive material, drawn from old public information films and animation, which is used as visual punctuation to break up the sea of talking heads. You know the sort of thing -- after a sobering detail, the film will cut to a faded piece of footage in which an anonymous actor exclaims "Great Scott!" or something similar.

This is an unmistakable Moore-ism, and one which inherently patronises the audience ("We know you might be getting bored," it seems to say, "so here's something zany"). Weed out those stylistic irritations and The Flaw would be nearly flawless.

It did make me wonder, however, why filmmakers specialising in fiction have been so slow to respond to the crisis. Although there has been a slight trend in US cinema toward characters suffering economic hardship (Ryan Fleck and Anna Boden's Sugar, Kelly Reichardt's Wendy and Lucy and Meek's Cutoff, the recent Win Win, even Little Miss Sunshine), no one has convincingly translated the story of the credit crunch into a film narrative. Dominic Savage's Freefall did it rather incisively, I thought, but that was television. The British stage hit Enron may have fizzled out on Broadway but it may still reach cinemas, with a film version currently being developed by the producer Laura Ziskin (George Clooney is lined up as a possible star and/or director).

Where, though, are the original scripts addressing the defining catastrophe of early 21st century life?

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

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So much for "the table never lies" – data unravels football's biggest lie of all

London side Brentford FC are using data to rethink the usual football club model.

It’s a miserable day for practice, the rain spitting down on the manicured training pitches of Brentford Football Club. Inside a tiny office marked Director of Football, Rasmus Ankersen is waiting for his phone to ring. The winter transfer window closes in 11 hours and there are deals to finalise.

Ankersen, a 33-year-old Dane with a trim beard and hair pulled into a small ponytail, seems relaxed. Perhaps he knows that the £12m transfer of the striker Scott Hogan to Aston Villa is as good as done. Or maybe his comfort comes from Brentford’s performance this season. The small west London club sits safely in the top half of the second tier of English football – at least according to management’s own version of the league table, which is based on “deserved” rather than actual results. Officially, on 31 January, when we meet, the team is 15th of 24.

“There’s a concept in football that the table never lies,” says Ankersen, whose own playing career was ended by a knee injury in his teens. “Well, that’s the biggest lie in football. Your league position is not the best metric to evaluate success.”

Brentford are an outlier in English football. Since the professional gambler Matthew Benham bought a majority share in 2012, they have relied on the scientific application of statistics – the “moneyball” technique pioneered in baseball – when assessing performance.

The early results were positive. In 2014, Brentford were promoted from League One to the Championship and the next season finished fifth. That same year, Benham’s other team, FC Midtjylland, which is run on similar principles, won the Danish Superliga for the first time.

Yet in 2016 Brentford slipped to ninth. Despite the disappointing season so far, Ankersen insists the strategy is the right one for “a small club with a small budget”.

Underpinning Brentford’s approach is the understanding that luck often plays a big part in football. “It is a low-scoring sport, so random events can have a big impact,” Ankersen says. “The ball can take a deflection, the referee can make a mistake. The best team wins less often than in other sports.”

In a match, or even over a season, a team can score fewer or more than its performance merits. A famous example is Newcastle in 2012, says Ankersen, who besides his football job is an entrepreneur and author. In his recent book, Hunger in Paradise, he notes that after Newcastle finished fifth in the Premier League, their manager, Alan Pardew, was rewarded with an eight-year extension of his contract.

If the club’s owners had looked more closely at the data, they would have realised the team was not nearly as good as it seemed. Newcastle’s goal difference – goals scored minus goals conceded – was only +5, compared to +25 and +19 for the teams immediately above and below them. Statistically, a club with Newcastle’s goal difference should have earned ten points fewer than it did.

Moreover, its shot differential (how many shots on goal a team makes compared to its opponents) was negative and the sixth worst in the league. That its players converted such a high percentage of their shots into goals was remarkable – and unsustainable.

The next season, Newcastle finished 16th in the Premier League. The team was not worse: its performance had regressed to the mean. “Success can turn luck into genius,” Ankersen says. “You have to treat success with the same degree of scepticism as failure.”

Brentford’s key performance metric is “expected goals” for and against the team, based on the quality and quantity of chances created during a match. This may give a result that differs from the actual score, and is used to build the alternative league table that the management says is a more reliable predictor of results.

Besides data, Brentford are rethinking the usual football club model in other ways. Most league clubs run academies to identify local players aged nine to 16. But Ankersen says that this system favours the richer clubs, which can pick off the best players coached by smaller teams.

Last summer, Brentford shut their academy. Instead, they now operate a “B team” for players aged 17 to 20. They aim to recruit footballers “hungry for a second chance” after being rejected by other clubs, and EU players who see the Championship as a stepping stone to the Premier League.

It’s a fascinating experiment, and whether Brentford will achieve their goal of reaching the Premier League in the near future is uncertain. But on the day we met, Ankersen’s conviction that his team’s fortunes would turn was not misplaced. That evening, Brentford beat Aston Villa 3-0, and moved up to 13th place in the table. Closer to the mean.

Xan Rice is Features Editor at the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 16 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times