Small bank made an example of in Abacus: Small Enough to Jail

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      A documentary by Steve James. Rating unavailable

      Just when Americans finally began contemplating to what degree their government had betrayed them in the Benedict Arnold sense, the U.S. House of Representatives passed yet another let’s-undo-Obama’s-legacy bill with the Financial Choice Act, quietly removing regulations placed on Wall Street investors after the meltdown of 2008.

      This move happened long after the completion of Abacus: Small Enough to Jail. The subtitle is a play on the phrase “too big to fail”, referring to huge banks like JP Morgan Chase, bailed out as Bush left office. And how many banks were held accountable for this bad-mortgage-fuelled disaster? Exactly one, and that’s the subject of the latest provocation from Steve James (Hoop Dreams).

      The events here centre on one Thomas Sung, an immigrant from Shanghai who became one of the first homegrown lawyers in Manhattan’s insular Chinatown. After some years of dealing with banks, he noticed how rarely they made loans to locals, and so he changed careers and opened one of his own. Two of his four grown daughters followed his path. Their relative inexperience was revealed when they discovered at least one of their loan officers scamming on the side.

      In the simply structured film, the eloquent Sung recalls how the decision to report the fraudulent loans came back to bite them after the regional district attorney, Cyrus Vance Jr., decided to make an example of his Abacus Federal Savings and Loan. Their bad-faith loans barely resembled those of the big boys, and this is why Rolling Stone’s Matt Taibbi and others argue that the small-potatoes aspect of the case made Abacus easy pickings.

      The moderately suspenseful film is filled with ironies, large and small, starting with Mr. and Mrs. Sung’s long-time obsession with Jimmy Stewart’s idealistic banker in It’s a Wonderful Life. But really, the American Dream has always been the province of immigrants. Remember them?