Hank: Five Years from the Brink: Film Review

Courtesy of Bloomberg Business Week
Former Treasury secretary Hank Paulson revisits his reign in this engrossing but one-sided doc.

A lengthy interview with George W. Bush's Treasury secretary Hank Paulson consumes this documentary.

Following in the footsteps of Errol Morris’ films about Robert McNamara and Donald Rumsfeld, another acclaimed documentary director, Joe Berlinger, presents an in-depth look at former Treasury Secretary Hank PaulsonHank: Five Years from the Brink is essentially one long interview with Paulson as he reflects on the decisions that led to the massive bailouts of banks and other institutions during the worst months of the recession in 2008.  Paulson was apparently eager to reflect on his tenure, partly in order to preserve his legacy and also to prevent this kind of disaster from happening again.  The film is receiving a limited theatrical release but will probably make few waves at the box office.

Paulson comes across as a cogent, thoughtful man, and his wife Wendy -- who reflects on their 40-year marriage and the effect that the economic crisis had on him -- also makes a striking impression. But the film cries out for other voices. At one point, after the collapse of Lehman Bros., Paulson reports that he called his brother, who worked for Lehman in Chicago, and got his support.  But we miss hearing his brother’s recollection of their conversation. None of the other economic gurus of the era is interviewed, so the film comes across as a 90-minute monologue, which is intriguing to a point but also wearying.

The movie’s biggest failing is that it gives little background on the economic policies of the Bush administration that led to the collapse of the housing market and the financial sector. There have, of course, been other documentaries that probed this back story, and Hank means to focus instead on the efforts to stem the disaster. Toward the end of the film, Berlinger questions Paulson about the public’s outrage over the coddling treatment of the titans of the financial industry. Paulson admits that the public is still resentful about the bailout, and he claims that he shared their anger over news reports of gigantic bonuses paid to top executives even as the economy was crumbling. But the film still seems too narrow in its approach and a little too impressed by Paulson’s self-justification.

As a piece of filmmaking, Hank also has to be considered a limited achievement. Berlinger tries to keep things moving with lots of excerpts from news footage of the era and fast-paced editing. But this still is essentially one long talking-head interview, with a few welcome asides from Wendy Paulson. It’s doubtful that this movie will do anything to lay the ongoing controversies of the Bush era to rest, and although Paulson’s intelligence always shines through, we never quite escape the feeling that this is a selective slice of history, ably assembled but frustratingly incomplete.

Opens: Friday, Jan. 31 (Abramorama Films).

Production: Bloomberg Businessweek Films.

Director: Joe Berlinger.

Producers:  Jeanine Brand, Ari Palitz, Joe Berlinger, Josh Tyrangiel.

Executive producers:  Jon Kamen, Dave O’Connor, Justin Wilkes.

Director of photography: Bob Richman.

Music: Ian Honeyman.

Editor: Brett Mason.

No rating, 86 minutes.