Event Coverage

VICE Screening Relives and Reveals Lasting Tensions from the 2008 Financial Crisis

By Bradford William Davis

Though 10 years have passed since the United States nearly plummeted into economic collapse, time has not healed old wounds. The new VICE Special Report Panic: The Untold Story of the 2008 Financial Crisis explores the controversial tactics used by top policymakers Hank Paulson, Ben Bernanke and Timothy Geithner to stabilize the American economy, particularly the reasons behind their decision to provide billions of dollars in financial relief to failing Wall Street firms. At a panel discussion in Washington, D.C. hosted by the Brookings Institution, a nonprofit public policy think tank, Panic director John Maggio and a group of subject experts revisited their account of those tense days.

“I lived through the crisis. I bought my first home in 2004 and sold it in 2008,” Maggio told panel moderator and Washington Post columnist Catherine Rampell. “But what I was most struck by and aimed to show, was that there were human beings behind these decisions.” Maggio was surprised by how emotional his subjects were, especially former President Barack Obama. “He tends to concentrate on every word, but let his guard down too.”

Maggio contemplated how concerns about legacy may have shaped the key decision-makers handling of the crisis, as well as their decision to appear in the special. “They wanted to get across that their handling was a success,” said the director, referencing the fact that taxpayer money was recovered in the years since the bailouts. “Doing this film was an attempt to provide a sort of corrective.” Still, he stressed that the public would ultimately decide its legacy, not the film or its subjects.

The post-screening panel exhibited some of the unresolved tensions documented in Panic. “All I could think of watching President Bush, Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid work on their response to the crisis was that there was real respect there,” said Neil Irwin, senior economics correspondent for The New York Times. “Nancy Pelosi and George Bush had extremely different politics, and I don’t think they liked each other, but they were able to sit in a room and work together.”

Irwin contrasted their mutual esteem with today’s political climate, which the film partially attributes to the fallout from the bailouts, especially the emergence of populist movements like Occupy Wall Street and the Tea Party. Donald Kohn, a senior fellow in Brookings’ Economic Studies department, feared that the current environment would be adverse to a large-scale emergency response to a crisis. “At least until these memories die out,” he said.

Responses from the audience confirmed that those memories were still very much alive. Echoing the populist concerns highlighted throughout the film, attendees asked the panelists if enough was done to prevent future catastrophe. “It was a self-perpetuating cycle,” admitted Wendy Edelberg, an Associate Director at the Congressional Budget Office. "The actions that caused the crisis were basically legal. Are we OK with that?"