With his wide-eyed scholarly enthusiasm, youthful good looks and penchant for world travel, is doing his best to become the Indiana Jones of economics.
Certainly the Harvard professor, economist, historian and bestselling author has become something of a poster pundit for the continuing global economic crisis. The publication of "The Ascent of Money: A Financial History of the World" seems a miracle of perfect timing and comes complete with a four-hour documentary that will air on PBS this year.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Wednesday, January 14, 2009 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 34 words Type of Material: Correction
'The Ascent of Money': A review of "The Ascent of Money" in Tuesday's Calendar section said the PBS program was appearing on "Frontline." It is a WNET.org production and is not part of "Frontline."
But Ferguson is not one to let the grass grow under his feet. In light of recent events, he and his producers have put together a two-hour version to help explain the current crisis. That appears on "Frontline" tonight.
If making a television show about the history of finances, or even the woes of the last few years, seems a Herculean task of perhaps mind-numbing proportions, well it must be said that one's enjoyment of the "The Ascent of Money" may have a direct relationship to one's success in remaining awake during those 90-minute Econ 101 lectures.
Which isn't to say that Ferguson and his filmmakers don't give it their cinematic all. With superimposed graphics, time-lapse photography, chalked equations that sparkle with stars, even an interview with a real live cowboy (on the nature of herd mentality, of course), "The Ascent of Money" spares neither bell nor whistle. And for every modern event, Ferguson provides a historical precedent, which means much excellent historical footage and narrative tidbits.
Within the first half hour, the viewer is treated to scenes from (predictably) the New York Stock Exchange and (less predictably) "The Merchant of Venice." For a few minutes it's hard to tell whether this is a travelogue or a History Channel doc as we move among the colorful citizenry of Peru and Italy before we are dumped, fairly unceremoniously, in Nashville, Tenn., which is apparently the bankruptcy capital of the United States. While there are lovely tidbits to be gleaned from this crash course in the origins of banking, the transition is a little jarring. Indeed, "The Ascent of Money" too often feels like what it is -- an abbreviated, cobbled-together version of a larger work.
Even so, no one will call it unambitious. Ferguson takes us on a breathless trip through the greatest hits of U.S. economic history, from the Louisiana Purchase to Enron, explaining along the way why real estate bubbles are tragically recurring events and stock markets are not to be trusted, why subprime lending is stupid but securitizing those loans is really stupid, why those guys who won the Nobel Prize for mathematically predicting the stock market were totally wrong (but apparently did not have to give the prize back), how China is bankrolling America but may not be as safe as it thinks it is.
It is by necessity a long and complicated trip, and if I could condense it into a revelatory sentence or two, I certainly wouldn't be sitting here writing television reviews.
The problem is that even with all the colorful visuals and a few interviews with key players (not to mention the cowboy), "The Ascent of Money" boils down to a two-hour lecture on American economics. While Ferguson is tireless in his enthusiasm for explaining difficult things with lively language and interesting historical detail, even he may have bitten off a bit more than he can chew, at least in two hours.
When: 9 tonight
Rating: TV-PG (may be unsuitable for young children)