Every once in a while, you get the artistic perfect storm of an exceptional raconteur and brilliant teacher, an extremely talented set of technical people, and a right-on, topical subject, all coming together. Jacob Kornbluth’s latest movie, Inequality for All (starring Robert Reich), is terrific documentary cinema.

film imageAdmittedly, when they first sought to answer the question of how the United States got into this ridiculously toxic financial mess, the auteurs had little sense of where this movie would take them. What emerged is a juggernaut of easy-to-follow data, mind-blowing graphics, and engaging interviews of hard-pressed workers and students. Their stories are yours and mine. The icing is the addition of amazingly frank and revealing interviews of the Pacific Pillow Company’s CEO and Warren Buffet, representing the enlightened upper 1 percent.

The movie is loosely based on the content of Secretary Reich’s legendarily popular University of California, Berkeley course “Wealth and Poverty,” and on his 2012 book, After Shock. It takes us through the lascivious coupling of “too large to fail” banks’ mortgage and investment divisions, the death of Glass-Stiegel, and the Congress-for-sale reality created by the Citizens United Supreme Court decision.

Some measure of the film is an autobiography of Reich himself. He is as funny, engaging, and as self-deprecating as Woody Allen. But his Rhodes scholarship, and reductio ad the comprehensible, are clear, whether he is speaking to union meetings or to the erudite students of Berkeley. As he tells about how his short stature has engendered the wrath of bullies, or about how he lost a guardian angel and friend (Michael Schwimmer) at the hands of brutal Klu Klux Klan members, Professor Reich’s humanity and humor shine through. And all of this is tagged with period media clips (not dissimilar from what was done in Zero Dark Thirty), with some academic economic modeling thrown in for good measure.

But the whole movie is not bread and roses… err… I mean a bed of roses. I asked Reich, “Can ramped-up consumerism be divorced from environmental degradation for a sustainable future?” He never really answered this. The query of whether this is simply Marxist redistribution, as posed to Secretary Reich by Bill Reilly, was skirted. Professor Reich denied being a closet Marxist, and then came out. However, Inequality for All‘s message was not “each according to his need,” but rather take from the top and give to the middle and bottom, and “ever little ‘ding, gonna be awry.”

Inequality for All is highly entertaining. Though as poignant as An Inconvenient Truth, not surprisingly, it lacks the stiffness. You do come away with hope for change, and a means to indulge it.

The most recent project of Joan Blades and Wes Boyd, who co-founded MoveOn.org is “Living Room Conversations.” With the use of nonviolent communication techniques, they bring together couples with diametrically opposed political belief systems. A diametrical foursome converse and eventually find common ground. Several months ago, they brought together Tea Party hard cores and Berkeley liberals. The common ground affirmation was “take big money out of politics.”

But Dorothy, you’re not in Berkeley anymore. This movie should go far to reach the underemployed in the sprawling, half-utilized industrial parks and strip malls of Middle America. The Harvard Lampoon once said, “If you only see one movie this year, you should probably get out more often.” In this case, Inequality for All with Robert Reich is that movie.

Adam Duhan is an internal medicine physician practicing in Berkeley for thirty years. He is chairman of the San Francisco Bay Sierra Club Population and the Environment Committee and passionately committed to universal health care.


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