Sometimes the biggest catastrophes leave no mark. The 1918 pandemic killed about 675,000 Americans, but left hardly a ripple in the cultural consciousness. It was forgotten by many until the outbreak of COVID. However, given the number of COVID-related projects already in the works (Jenji Kohan’s lockdown anthology “Social Distance,” among others), this is one disaster that feels like it will be fully memorialized. One would think, given the reams of articles and many topical movies on the Great Recession (“The Big Short,” “Inside Job,” and so on), that the crisis had been appropriately covered for future generations. However, according to Patrick Lovell and Eric Vaughan’s enraged and enraging miniseries “The Con,” pretty much all of those works aimed too small.
Dense and splenetic, “The Con” aims to change that. The thesis Lovell (who co-wrote, produced, narrates, and conducts many of the interviews) puts forth is one that would be easy to caricature as tinfoil-hat material. In short, his position is: They Were All In On It. In this framing, reckless financial institutions selling collateralized debt based on toxic mortgages not worth the paper they were printed on was certainly part of the financial catastrophe of 2007 and 2008. But according to “The Con,” that knotty tale of Wall Street malfeasance was only part of what happened. The series provides a grand unified theory of the cause of the Great Recession that begins and ends with government—deregulating banks in the 1980s and ‘90s, refusing to imprison or even charge the heads of investment banks once the market imploded even after seemingly clear illegality, and bailing the institutions out to do it all over again—and fueled all along by a gusher of greed and criminality that makes it seem like there is not a single honest mortgage broker in the entire United States.
The scope of this is familiar territory for conspiracy devotees, who often try to cover up their logical gaps by exploding the size of their claims, hoping noise will do the trick. Lovell certainly has volume on his side. A somewhat monotone and repetitive narrator, he has a dogged persistence and lack of interest in narrative gilding that makes him seem like an investigative reporter who has the goods but has been wandering the wilderness without a byline for too long. His thudding delivery might have been balanced out by bringing a more personal touch to the story—he mentions being homeless like so many others after the housing market crash, but does not go into detail). But what makes the miniseries more than a recitation of evildoing is not just its on-the-nose fact-collecting but how Lovell brings it back to people like Addie Polk.
In 2008, when a wave of defaulting mortgages was sweeping the nation, lost in much of the coverage were the civilian victims. A nearly 90-year-old church lady in Akron, Ohio whose husband had fully paid for her house, Polk shot herself in the chest after being threatened with eviction. It turned out she had been duped by mortgage scamsters, who took tens of thousands of dollars out on her house before the deputies showed up claiming she owed payments for something she never heard of. Lovell returns to Polk in each episode as a reminder of the crisis’s human toll.
“The Con” insists with deep conviction that the housing market collapsed because of predatory criminals making up thousands of fake documents to entangle unwary (or sometimes entirely unknowing) consumers in complex payment schemes that delivered signing bonuses to the mortgage brokers and their bosses at firms like Countrywide. This stands in opposition to one of the era’s prevailing gaslighting narratives, illustrated by the clips shown here of amoral free-market fanatic Rick Santelli ranting about irresponsible homeowners rather than the crooks (like the Countrywide employee who says, “If they can fog a mirror, we’ll give ‘em a loan”) who fleeced them.
The other unsung characters in the saga that Lovell brings in as the series winds with ever-increasing fury towards the cataclysm of 2007 are the whistleblowers, FBI agents, government watchdogs, and various state lawyers who all tried to raise the alarm. Each tells a variation of the same frustrating story: Uncovering systemic street-level housing fraud (usually targeting poor and minority neighborhoods), billions of dollars’ worth of fraudulent loans, or trillions in junk debt misleadingly packaged by Goldman Sachs and other banks as secure investments, only to be ignored or in some cases fired.
Lovell hits his message like a gong: The market crash of 2007 was not a surprise. Anybody who wanted to see it coming could have seen have it coming. Mortgage fraud was already rampant before Bear Stearns collapsed. The house of cards was always going to come down. According to the movie’s rat-a-tat litany, earlier administrations’ (Clinton, Bush) bipartisan anti-regulatory fervor had let banks get so big they could hold the nation fiscally hostage. Lovell argues that once the banks got their money, the Obama administration then walked meekly away from holding the kind of massive criminal cases that put so many bankers in prison during the Savings and Loan scandal of the 1980s.
Much of this is known. Narrative movies, documentaries, and shows like “Frontline” have taken on bits and pieces of it. Shouty, blunt, and more than a little grungy, “The Con” brings it all together on a larger and ultimately more worrying scale. Although wasting little time on artistry, Lovell does put forward at least one sharp insight for anybody wondering why Goldman Sachs and other institutions walked away from what appeared to be criminal behavior. It goes like this: The assumptions at most levels of academia, finance, and government is that banks act rationally. They wouldn’t knowingly invest in toxic assets because that could cripple them. But Lovell keeps reminding viewers, it wasn’t banks making decisions, it was bankers. For those men, pumping an institution full of short-term garbage they could flip and then walk out the door with $100 million in bonuses? That’s the height of rationality … in late-stage decadent capitalism, at least.
Lovell does not uncover a lot of new information over the course of this series. You already know many of the players and have some foggy idea of how it all went down, at the higher levels, at least. But you likely have never heard Addie Polk’s name. In a nutshell, that is the point of “The Con.” [A-]