Abacus: Small Enough to Jail (2016)

STEVE JAMES

Bil’s rating (out of 5):   BBBB.  USA, 2016.  Blue Ice Films, Kartemquin Films, Mitten Media, Motto Pictures.  Cinematography by Tom Bergmann.  Produced by Julie Goldman, Mark Mitten.  Music by Joshua Abrams.  Production Design by Christine Cornell, Matthew Taylor.  Film Editing by John Farbrother, David E. Simpson.  Academy Awards 2017.  Toronto International Film Festival 2016.  

The financial crisis of 2008 resulted in an eventual multi-billion dollar bailout that was as controversial and devastating as the disaster that caused it, rewarding irresponsible financiers with cash bonuses instead of jail time.  While money was being handed out to big firms in the name of keeping the economy from total annihilation, no indictments were handed out to any bank except one, a small chain called Abacus that serves the Chinese-American community of New York and is still run by its founder, Thomas Sung, and his daughters.  A year after the economic meltdown, it comes to the attention of Abacus management that one of their employees is taking loan deposits from customers and keeping them for himself, which gets him fired as soon as he was exposed.  Instead of rooting out the problem, this situation opens Abacus up to five years of investigation that eventually leads to a trial in which the highest members of the organization are being accused of permitting the shady dealings of their lower employees to take place.  The case takes its toll on the happiness of a family proud of their business, on their standing in a community that has come to trust them with people’s savings and their having been selected for punishment feels like they’re being singled out as “small enough to jail” (since we can’t go after the big companies that are “too big to fail”).  This exciting documentary covers the entire situation with impressive efficiency, boiling years of detailed information down to ninety very entertaining minutes that include opinions from the family members themselves (Sung’s wife Hwei Lin being the most camera-friendly of them all), journalists writing on the case, lawyers for the prosecution and even members of the trial jury.  While it isn’t one of the more explosive, innovative works that Steve James is famous for–its style is straightforward and comprehensive and not as complicated as his most popular films–the famed documentarian isn’t phoning it in here either, and the story is riveting from start to finish.

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