'Abacus: Small Enough to Jail' courtesy of the Toronto International Film Festival
'Abacus: Small Enough to Jail' courtesy of the Toronto International Film Festival

"It’s been 22 years since director Steve James released Hoop Dreams," begins Variety's Owen Gleiberman, "and though none of his other films has had anything approaching that impact, in his quiet way he’s become a brand-name documentarian with a signature way of seeing. The captivating Roger Ebert biography Life Itself was an exception, but in general the qualities of a Steve James film are that it has a highly visible and passionate social conscience; it tracks its subject over time with empathy and skill; and there’s a fly-on-the-wall Zen plainness to his approach that recalls the work of Fred Wiseman. His new movie, Abacus: Small Enough to Jail, falls in line with previous James efforts like At the Death House Door (about a Texas execution chaplain who became an anti-death penalty crusader) or The Interrupters (about the attempt to steer troubled Chicago youths away from violence). In this case, the angle is more overtly political: Abacus tells the story of a family-owned bank in New York’s Chinatown that became the one and only bank in the US to be prosecuted for mortgage fraud in the wake of the 2008 financial meltdown."

"The film takes us behind the scenes of Abacus Federal Savings Bank, which attorney Thomas Sung started in 1984, inspired by Jimmy Stewart’s bighearted character from It’s a Wonderful Life to provide opportunities to Chinese immigrants living in New York’s Chinatown," explains Screen's Tim Grierson. "Almost 30 years later, the New York District Attorney’s office brings charges against this small, family-run bank, accusing it of, among other things, falsifying and fabricating loan and mortgage documents…. To be sure, the Sungs’ tight bond and the court case’s lack of shocking twists keep Abacus from being a gripping thriller in the traditional sense. But although Abacus is a conventional combination of talking heads, re-enactments and fly-on-the-wall filming, James is confident enough not to oversell his movie’s straightforward story by trying to artificially inflate the stakes or the family dysfunction."

"The film anatomizes the bank’s sense of mission, the peculiarities of banking in a Chinese immigrant community, and the Sungs’ hard-fought lawsuit, which lasted five years and cost the family $10 million," writes Elise Nakhnikian at the House Next Door. "James gets excellent access to people on all sides of the case, from lawyers for both the prosecution and the defense, to jurors who explain what they and their fellow jurors were thinking, to Chinatown leaders who assert that the assault on the bank was experienced as an attack on the integrity of the community as a whole."

Abacus "makes no pretense at being neutral," notes Michael Sicinski, writing for Cinema Scope. "James lets all the major players speak for themselves, but it becomes clear that the case against Abacus management was circumstantial at best. But more damning is the blinkered racism that D.A. Cyrus Vance and his team employed against the Sungs and their associates. It’s not just that the defendants were marched through City Hall on an actual chain gang—a photo op staged by the prosecutors to humiliate the Sungs into copping a plea, one they knew would be particularly effective against prominent Chinese-Americans concerned with 'losing face.' … The whole case, one senses, was predicated on a stereotypical assumption that nailing the 'docile' Chinese to the wall would be easy. But as one Chinatown old-timer says to Thomas, 'it’s good that they did this to you. You’re a fighter.' Damn right."

"Community. That is what James does and does well," writes Scout Tafoya in Brooklyn Magazine. "Portraits of communities barely hanging together thanks to government indifference, poverty, unrest, malcontent and a thousand other factors. But the community stands. What James does not do well, on the evidence of his latest film, the limp investigative doc Abacus: Small Enough to Jail, is pretend he’s Errol Morris. James denies himself the street-level vantage point that lent the best of his early work its power in favor of borrowed (not to mention heavy-handed) grammatical flourishes. He’s acting confident but he looks lost."

For Jordan M. Smith at Ioncinema, though, "James bets a on a bank and makes out with a righteous winner." More from Jason Bailey (Flavorwire), David D'Arcy (Artinfo), Stephen Dalton (Hollywood Reporter), Matt Fagerholm (RogerEbert.com), Linda Holmes (NPR), Kevin Jagernauth (Playlist, B), Michael Snydel (Film Stage, B+) and Brian Tallerico (RogerEbert.com). And, on their Well, Nobody's Perfect… podcast, Rob Kraszewski and Geoff MacNaughton discuss the film with James (37'39").

Update, 10/7: "At this point, you wonder what is there left for Steve James ‎to do to be universally acknowledged as the greatest living documentarian we have," writes Stephen Saito. Perhaps it'll be "a film that may be the closest he’ll come to making a conventional documentary in its straightforward style, laden with talking heads and graphics with factoids, and yet so compelling and deeply satisfying you realize only he could make it."

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