Friday, September 27, 2013

In Joe Berlinger's HANK: 5 YEARS FROM THE BRINK, Mr. Paulson tells his side of the meltdown

With so very much to view out there in Netflix streaming-land, TrustMovies is not sure he'd have watched HANK: 5 YEARS FROM THE BRINK -- the story of how Hank Paulson helped this country and the world avoid a complete financial meltdown -- were it not that its filmmaker is Joe Berlinger, the guy who gave us the Paradise Lost trilogy, Crude, and other worthwhile documentaries. TM is glad he did because -- even after all the many documentaries and docu-dramas that have tackled one or another aspect of this hugely harmful fiasco, from the Cockburns' American Casino to Chasing Madoff -- this one remains of interest, worth seeing and hearing (yes, it's mostly talking heads again) as much for the fact that it seems to sink its own protagonist and torpedo his scenario as anything else.

Mr. Berlinger, shown at left, appears to be investigating here only his subject's side of the story, allowing the much (depending on which camp you occupy) reviled or loved Mr. Paulson to explain, with occasional questions from the filmmaker, what happened and why. Paulson's wife Wendy is also on hand to explain and second some of this banker/administrator's ideas and actions, as well as his "character." Wendy, shown below, is impressive as a no-nonsense woman who has stood by her man for decades now.

We learn more about Paulson here than we have elsewhere, though there is no mention of his religion -- Christian Science, again! -- and how it might have affected his ideas and actions (and believe me, as an ex-Christian Scientist, this odd religion surely does). We get some history -- how he and Wendy met and did not, initially, hit it off; his first "bailout," of Lockheed, back in the 70s; his work in and with the Nixon administration; and his tenure at Goldman Sachs, which led eventualy to his job as CEO; and his appointment by George W. Bush (who asked several times before Paulson agreed: evidently his family members were not that keen on the activities of the Bush administration) as Secretary of the Treasury.

Of course, it's the story of the meltdown -- how it happened and who did what (or often didn't) -- that is most "grabbing" here, and though we've heard it before, notably well in the cable TV movie Too Big to Fail, Paulson's story still rivets. I wish Berlinger had been more forceful in finding out why Bear Stearns was "rescued" while Lehman Brothers was allowed to collapse. (Could Richard Fuld really be that big an asshole, or was Lehman Brothers simply small enough to fail?)

While Paulson pays lip-service to the need for better regulation of the banks and Wall Street, somehow this is all it ever sounds like: more tiresome blather, too-little-too-late. This co-joined industry, as we have learned and still learn daily from information that continues to leak out of this soiled sieve, is rotten to the core -- just as are the would be regulators who "service" it instead of regulating it, and the agencies that "rate" its trash as triple A.

The section on those famous loan carriers Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae and whether they are indeed part of the government or not, is fascinating and necessary to consider, while Paulson's talk of how the Domino Theory of failing banks (and shadow banks) should instead be thought of as a Popcorn Theory makes little sense and in any case is not explained well at all. And why include such a lengthy discussion of a cashmere coat Paulson once bought at Bergdorf's (and then returned, upon some nagging from Wendy) unless one is dead set on proving what a thrifty and non-material-possessions-loving family this is?

We sense an anger in Paulson (below) regarding the hypocrisy of these CEOs, none of whom at the time of the crisis and their acceptance of a government bail-out like TARP wanted to admit that their firm was in trouble. But when Paulson make a statement like "People generally believe that Ben Bernanke, Timothy Geithner (shown above) and I tell the truth," one is a bit taken aback. By not telling the whole truth but only using selective portions, Paulson and that whole gang were more part of the problem than any solution. Yet he needs to see himself as some kind of savior. (He also completely ignores what Goldman Sachs was doing in derivatives when he was in charge of it and how much money he walked away with during those years.)

The man certainly has some fine qualities, and he finally comes across as a relatively decent guy in the service of much worse men. What should make you particularly angry at this movie is how Paulson manages to side-step so well. "We will always have financial crises, no matter what the regulatory system is," he insists. Oh, Please. Let's put some real regulations back first, and then talk about it. He tells us that he left a blueprint for regulation of the industry. Lovely -- but what is it, exactly, and is anyone acting on it?

Available now via Netflix streaming, Hank: 5 Years from the Brink is a good movie to get your blood pressure back up while taking yet another walk down an all-too-recent and ugly memory lane. I suspect Berlinger has somehow acted here as a stealth agent, allowing Paulson and crew to "explain" themselves and then compiling and editing it all their "innocence" into something a little less than benign.

None of the photos above are from the film itself. 
I couldn't find any (the movie is not being given 
much of a marketing push), and so I
just grabbed a few off the internet....

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