In 2008, at the height of a presidential race between John McCain and Barack Obama, the world economy suffered a crisis that seemed to push it toward the brink of a meltdown, one caused by dubious lending practices and a housing market that bubbled until it burst. At the heart of it: banks that should have known better engaging in shady dealings at the expense of the everyday consumer — and ultimately the world at large. But for all the harm perpetrated by big-name institutions, only one bank tied to the crisis ever was ever indicted for mortgage fraud, the family owned Abacus Federal Savings Bank headquartered in New York’s Chinatown. Where others were deemed “too big to fail,” Abacus wasn’t. It could take the fall.
That’s the central thesis of Abacus: Small Enough to Jail the latest from documentarian Steve James (Hoop Dreams, The Interrupters). And it’s one the film argues well. In pursuing Abacus, the New York District Attorney’s Office found a convenient target that offered some good press. Abacus was not blameless, largely due to its employment of a con man who used his job to fill his own pockets. But the bank’s higher-ups also began cooperating as soon as they realized something was amiss — yet ended up indicted anyway.
James talks to both sides, and to journalists who covered the case, like Rolling Stone Matt Taibbi and The New Yorker’s Jiayang Fan, and the facts that emerge suggest that Abacus wound up on the receiving end of a too-vigorous effort to prosecute somebody, anybody, for the sins of the financial world. One sequence details, for instance, the curious decision to handcuff bank employees together chain gang-style for processing, one that seems to have been made out of a need for a photo op than any real concern for security.