Last night PBS aired the first installment of a new Frontline documentary called "Money, Power, & Wall Street," which was about, as you might imagine, that whole big ugly messy thing that happened in the financial sector a few years ago. It was one of those "good medicine" installments of PBS' regularly fascinating series, something a bit clinically educational but good for you, and easy enough to swallow.
Terms like "credit derivatives" and "credit default swap" have been making non-finance types' heads (and some finance folks' heads too) spin for years now, theoretical, labyrinthine sleights of hand that they are. Last night's documentary did a good job of explaining these destructive viruses without becoming an alienating technical schematic. It put a human face on the concepts, interviewing people who were tangentially or directly responsible for creating these risky entities, including Terri Duhon, who'd been one of the young J.P. Morgan wunderkinds who basically invented the credit derivatives idea while on some sort of corporate retreat in the '90s. She's now rueful and head-shaking about what her invention wrought, but like most people interviewed so far, she gently shifts the real weight of the blame elsewhere. (Most of the people interviewed always seem to have known in a vague sense that something was wrong, because they're not dumb you see, but also to not have known in any way that would have allowed them to do anything about it. Helpless bystanders all.)
The documentary has assembled an impressive array of interviews, among them the chairman of UBS, Nancy Pelosi, and the former CEO of Merrill Lynch. All seem shaken still as they recall the immediate days of the meltdown, which the documentary moves into in its second hour, slowing the pace down and focusing on just a few days. Like the excellent documentary Inside Job before it, "Money, Power, & Wall Street" is built well, establishing the general stakes of the game in slightly sweeping fashion until we run up against September of '08 and have to stop to take a more careful look.
Here the story enters Too Big to Fail territory, which, if you recently watched that HBO film or have read Andrew Ross Sorkin's book, will feel a bit like repetition and rehashing. But that's probably OK. Frontline isn't always the first on the scene, but when they do eventually get there and set up their fancy cameras, they tend to be the most thorough. Plus, again, this is not simply a story of Hank Paulson and company. The documentary aims to tell a bigger story, with part two (airing next Tuesday) dealing with the post-bailout world and Occupy Wall Street. (The program opened last night with an OWS bookend.) If part one is any indication, it will be a sober and unsensationalistic look at just what the hell is going on with the nation's money, one that will likely make us feel more enriched, or at least aware, for having watched.
Sure last night we got itchy remote fingers and maybe switched over to Glee for a bit — Kurt has a new crushhhhh!!! — but we did eventually come back to Frontline, because, while not exactly easy watching, it's a well-composed and always thoughtful lecture. Most vitally, it's one told through collage, made up of the voices of people who were there. The first part is online and, when you have two hours free, is worth a watch. It's important that we understand these things! (If you don't already. Some you probably pay attention better than us.) And while Frontline probably shouldn't be your single source, it's a big, engaging, and comprehensive main textbook for the class.