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Abacus: Small Enough to Jail Review

By David Kempler

Don't Count on the Government

On September 29, 2008, the Dow Jones Industrial Average plunged an astounding 777.68 points. It's the largest drop for a single day, ever and came as a direct result of Congress rejecting a bank bailout bill. The economy was tossed into chaos and some of America's largest banks were found to be practicing less than honest policies.

The country erupted in an almost universal call to bring to justice some of the leaders of the banks that were found to be the guiltiest. It was anticipated that many of those leaders would be put on trial and that many of them would end up convicted and subsequently incarcerated for a long time. Astoundingly, none of the big names served a day in prison, and the only punishment meted out would be relatively small monetary fines along the lines of steal a billion, get fined a million.

There was one exception; The Abacus Federal Savings Bank, a small family-run business in New York City's Chinatown, opened by local businessman, Thomas Sung. The Manhattan's D.A.'s office indicted the bank, and 19 of its employees. It came about as a result of Sung spotting an irregularity in the loans department which they traced to an employee who they then fired for taking bribes. The bank then advised the Securities Commission of their actions. They did everything by the book and were rewarded by an indictment.

Steve James, of "Hoop Dreams" fame, directs, and while "Abacus: Small Enough to Jail" is no "Hoop Dreams", it is a fun watch. In the first scene, we see Sung and his wife at home, watching their favorite film, "It's a Wonderful Life". Sung tells us that it served as the inspiration for his opening the first ever Chinese owned bank in Chinatown. He admired Jimmy Stewart's George Bailey for his using a small bank to aid the locals.

The DA's indictment of Sung's bank was a major burden on Sung and his family. The case lasted three years and cost the Sungs 10 million dollars. It helped that Sung's three daughters are all very good attorneys. The Sung family prevailed, but the financial and emotional toll was high.

What we learn is that the little fish always gets the shaft and the big fish always skates free, something we already knew. James fails to capture what must have been torture for the Sung family. All of the necessary elements are there and it's all very good, but it never quite soars. This abacus adds up, but it could use a few more beads of excitement.

What did you think?

Movie title Abacus: Small Enough to Jail
Release year 2016
MPAA Rating NR
Our rating
Summary I had always heard that the government didn't go after the banks after the 2008 crash. Turns out that they went after a tiny bank in NYC's Chinatown. This Steve James documentary examines the absurdity of it.
View all articles by David Kempler
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