With a title like “Hank,” as opposed to, say, “Inside Job,” you don’t expect Joe Berlinger’s documentary about Hank Paulson — who as Treasury secretary in the George W. Bush administration dealt with the financial disaster that began in September 2008 — to dig very deep. Unlike Charles Ferguson’s 2010 Academy Award-winning film, Berlinger’s documentary is no exposé.
It is more a portrait of power. He poses Paulson in front of his camera in a manner reminiscent of Errol Morris with Robert McNamara in the Oscar-winning “The Fog of War” (2003) or with Donald Rumsfeld in “The Unknown Known” (2013) and lets his subject present his case. But whereas Morris in his films persists in his scrutiny until the subject wavers and cracks, here Paulson emerges with his reputation and version of events intact. And maybe that is the way things really were, but it would be more convincing had Berlinger shown some of the same doggedness he displayed in his devastating “Paradise Lost” trilogy, which contributed to the freeing of three innocent men from death row.
Perhaps Berlinger might have gained more credibility had he titled the film “The Bailout King,” the nickname given Paulson for his role, along with Timothy Geithner and Ben Bernanke, in pushing through the much-despised Troubled Asset Relief Program (TARP), which the film argues probably prevented a Depression and a collapse of the world economy. It came at a steep price: $700 billion in taxpayer money paid out to save the country’s biggest financial institutions from the consequences of their own reckless greed and stupidity. Paulson says he also found the measure distasteful, especially when the people responsible for the disaster rewarded themselves with multimillion-dollar bonuses. But given the alternative, what else could have been done? And, as it turned out, all the money was eventually repaid with interest.
Paulson is less convincing when, in a rare instance of tough questioning, Berlinger asks him why he didn’t stop the bleeding earlier, by bailing out Lehman Brothers, one of the first major firms in trouble, the collapse of which, some argue, started a domino effect of bank failures. Paulson’s jargony explanation seems questionable, but Berlinger does not pursue the matter further.
Nor does Berlinger offer much in the way of opposing viewpoints. The many criticisms and objections to Paulson’s policies come in the form of news clips of demonstrators, newspaper headlines and cartoons, and sound bites from people ranging from Jon Stewart to various Republican congressmen to Senator Elizabeth Warren. The only point of view given equal time is that of Paulson’s feisty wife, Wendy, who relates how, when her husband faced his darkest moment, she read to him a passage from the Book of Timothy, reaffirming his resolve.
Paulson seems a decent guy, trying his best to offset disaster under incredible pressure and in the most trying of circumstances. But that doesn’t mean everything he did was right. For one thing, he shows little desire to punish those culpable. Nor does he seem keen on tougher regulations, concluding that they will do nothing to prevent the inevitable failures inherent in the system. A denial of personal responsibility and inadequate regulations: Isn’t that what led us to the brink in the first place?