This documentary, which was originally broadcast on the PBS program “Frontline,” takes a very casual approach to recalling the facts of the 2008 acquisition of Merrill Lynch by Bank of America. As framed in this presentation, Bank of America was strong-armed into buying up the ailing Merrill Lynch by Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson, despite the bank’s objections over Merrill Lynch’s substantial losses and the seemingly luxuriant corporate lifestyle enjoyed by its top executives.
The problem here is presenting Bank of America as an oversized community bank run out of North Carolina by a bunch of good old boys who were flabbergasted at the ways of Wall Street and baffled at how strong the federal government can be. Kenneth D. Lewis, the Bank of America CEO, speaks freely about flying in his corporate jet but expresses shock that the Merrill Lynch leaders, particullary former CEO John Thain, demanded compensation bonuses. Yeah, what’s wrong with that picture?
Lewis’ claims that his company had an inadequate amount of time to perform due diligence on Merrill Lynch’s books smells fishy, particularly when one considers Bank of America’s handling of the acquisition of the troubled mortgage lender Countrywide Financial from the same year. (The Countrywide transaction is, curiously, absent from the documentary.)
Lewis and Thain speak at great length in this film, but Paulson is not present – he is only seen in a series of strangely unflattering black-and-white photographs and a brief video clip where he makes a weak joke at a news conference. A group of financial journalists show up for talking heads commentary, including CNBC’s insufferable Charlie Gasparino and enchanting Maria Bartiromo.
“Breaking the Bank” is a sloppy and irresponsible entry that does not measure up to the “Frontline” standards of video journalism. In this case, the viewer literally gets shortchanged.