Review: ‘Hank: 5 Years From the Brink’ is an economic horror story

<i>This post has been updated. See note below.</I>

There’s a story former U.S. Treasury Secretary Henry “Hank” Paulson tells in Joe Berlinger’s unsettling new documentary, “Hank: 5 Years From the Brink,” about “Goodnight Moon.”

His wife, Wendy, suggested that instead of the insistent monotone we grew accustomed to in 2008 as he explained the trillion-dollar Wall Street bailout to Congress, he should read the bedtime story to his children with more emotion in his voice. When he did, they burst into tears — demanding that he read like Daddy.

Listening to Paulson’s measured and meticulous parsing in “Hank” of how this country teetered on the edge of financial disaster, bursting into tears seems an appropriate response for this tale too.

“Hank: 5 Years From the Brink”: In the Feb. 14 Calendar section, theater information for a review of the documentary “Hank: 5 Years from the Brink,” said the film would be playing at AMC Burbank. It will now show exclusively at Laemmle’s NoHo 7. —

For all of Paulson’s intelligent calm in front of the camera, he is telling an American horror story of massive proportions. It is chilling to recall, as the film recounts, what came to light that fateful August. The news was nothing but bad as one financial giant after another flailed and failed as the U.S. housing market collapsed around those risky subprime loans. That it could have been much worse, according to Paulson, is little consolation.

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This focused, taciturn man doesn’t exactly come to life in the film, but he does become more real as we see how deeply that time in the pressure cooker affected him. Paulson’s decisions will no doubt be debated for decades, but what comes through is his singular focus on ensuring the U.S. economy did not collapse. When Wendy says Paulson had nightmares of a 1930s-style depression with bread lines, you believe it.

Yet for all of the substantive issues underpinning the documentary, it still feels a slight film for Berlinger, and very unlike the documentary veteran’s best work, found in his dogged following of the West Memphis Three case. The “Paradise Lost” trilogy, which began in 1996, helped earn release for three teens controversially convicted for the murders of three 8-year-olds. Not to mention an Oscar nomination for Berlinger and co-director Bruce Sinofsky for the trilogy’s final chapter, 2011’s “Paradise Lost 3: Purgatory.”

In “Hank,” there is only Hank. Not the push and pull of ideas being weighed by many. Berlinger does intercut Paulson’s childhood growing up on a farm in the Midwest. And we dip into his Dartmouth years, though those are mostly shaped by meeting Wendy, to whom he’s been married more than 40 years. They remain a devout and family-centric couple, so much so that during a particularly rough round of negotiations with Congress, Paulson left to call Wendy and ask her to pray.

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There is an earnestness that comes through as the former Goldman Sachs CEO walks us through those catastrophic initial days when Lehman Bros. filed for bankruptcy and Bank of America bought the struggling Merrill Lynch at a fire-sale price.

The timeline of the financial fall is set out by intercutting footage of TV talking heads and a graphic that features a jagged red line tracking the Dow’s precipitous drops. That plunging line turns up so often it soon moves from informative to irritant.

There is an occasional clip of a congressman or senator pushing back against one of Paulson’s proposals. But the film is not out to assess the former Treasury secretary’s job performance. To his credit, Paulson is as candid about his own shortfalls as everyone else’s. But at the end of the day, it is still a horror story.


‘Hank: 5 Years From the Brink’

MPAA rating: None.

Running time: 1 hour, 26 minutes

Playing: Laemmle NoHo 7