With his slightly oversized suits, quiet raspy voice and large digital watch, Hank Paulson comes across as someone’s kindly Midwestern uncle in “Hank: 5 Years from the Brink,” not a former Goldman Sachs chief executive who became the man tasked with cleaning up the mess of an unraveling American economy. He’s been lampooned by political cartoonists, talking heads and the Occupy movement, but you have to feel for him when he talks about how, when he was at his most desperate, he got a “case of the dry heaves” in front of some of America’s most powerful people.
The documentary’s greatest strength is its ability to humanize Paulson. It purports to be a historical record of the 2007 financial crisis, and it delivers in that sense, defining securitization, subprime lending and illiquid assets in ways the average American can comprehend. But the movie, by Academy Award-nominated director Joe Berlinger, is also a character study of Paulson, who was asked to be Treasury secretary three times before he agreed and ended up in one of the world’s most thankless jobs.
“I’m a sloucher,” Paulson says as he sits down with his interviewer in a library to discuss a play-by-play of the financial crisis and its aftermath. And immediately, the man who once asked Congress for $700 billion is just a self-deprecating guy, complete with a wife, Wendy, who keeps him in check. While at Goldman, he once came home with a cashmere coat from Bergdorf Goodman, and Wendy made him return it, she says, because who really needs two coats?
The interviews with Wendy are the film’s brightest moments, and the movie offers a sweet picture of their marriage. At his most distressed, Paulson called her and she bolstered him with a Bible verse. She also tried to cheer him up with a bike ride in Rock Creek Park (although her distracted husband ended up crashing into one of the barriers separating weekend traffic from the bike path).
Paulson has a gift for explaining complex situations in laymen’s terms, and the movie intercuts Paulson’s interviews with clips from news shows to further break things down. For anyone who doesn’t have a complete grasp on the hows and whys of the crisis, “Hank” should clear things up.
But while the movie asks some tough questions of Paulson, it doesn’t explicitly bring up some of the intense hostility toward him. In 2009, Time magazine named Paulson one of the 25 people to blame for the financial crisis. That’s quite a title. Have some of his opponents come around in the past few years? It’s hard to say, given that Paulson and his wife are the only two people interviewed. And while old news footage gives some sense of Paulson’s detractors at the time, no one pops in to provide an update of how economists feel.
“Hank” makes a persuasive case for its subject’s competence and his likability. Some might find it interesting that Paulson’s family wasn’t a fan of President George W. Bush when the Treasury secretary took the job, that his brother (and best friend) was working for Lehman Brothers when the investment bank folded and that he adamantly insists he’s morally opposed to government bailouts. He also expresses his rage toward the bankers who received ostentatious bonuses from government bailout money.
Will it be enough to silence Paulson’s detractors? Probably not, but it could have gone a lot further in giving the audience all sides of the story and allowing them to judge for themselves.
★ ★ ½
Unrated. At AMC Hoffman Center 22. Contains nothing objectionable. 85 minutes.