‘Hank: Five Years From the Brink’: Teachable moment

January 28, 2014

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Almost from the moment the economy collapsed during the 2008 presidential campaign, there has been a war to control the narrative of what led to the disaster – nearly a catastrophe – that almost brought down the nation’s (and the world’s) economy.

One of the earliest was Charles Ferguson’s Oscar-winning “Inside Job” and there have been others – documentaries and dramatizations such as “Too Big to Fail” – that have tried to explain what actually happened.

Now, five years after the fact, we get “Hank: Five Years from the Brink,” in which former U.S. Treasury Secretary Henry “Hank” Paulson gives us a play-by-play of how he and Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke and Federal Reserve chairman Timothy Geithner, kept everything from collapsing while alternately massaging and challenging the various egos that ran the nation’s largest banks.

Filmmaker Joe Berlinger keeps it simple: He sits Paulson down in front of the camera (and, at moments, Paulson’s wife, Wendy) and lets them talk, Errol Morris-stye. Then he alternates between TV news coverage of the events and Paulson’s narrative of what went on.

Paulson is more convincing than he is dramatic. By now, these events have been obscured by obfuscation from all quarters: apologists for policies of Clinton and Bush II that led to the crisis, the banking industry (which wants to accept no blame and obviously has learned no lessons) and everyone else who profited from the events prior to the crash (and hopes to do so again).

Berlinger has made a worthy film and an important document. Paulson is an intriguingly ingenuous character: smart, determined, if a little naïve. It’s a narrative we need to understand and learn from – but, unfortunately, it’s hard to imagine anyone except wonks and total politics/economics junkies wanting to hear this story again.

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