The new HBO documentary fails to make its subject compelling
Credit: HBO

Becoming Warren Buffett, director Peter Kunhardt’s documentary about the famous investor, arrives at an inconvenient time. An America still reeling from the greed of Wall Street in the 2008 financial crisis just does not feel like the right environment for a hagiography about one of America’s very richest men — even a generous philanthropist like Buffett.

The subject himself is affable enough, witty and self-deprecating as he guides us through the stages of his life. But the story is quite dry. Horatio Alger-style rags-to-riches stories will always provide something of a vicarious thrill (in this case, Buffett began as a prodigious Nebraskan boy interested in reading and numbers, who then pursued the art of investment until he mastered it) but there’s nothing viewers haven’t seen before in other paeans to the magic of the American Dream.

A great documentary needs some tension — whether between the subjects, or between the subject and the director, or something else. Unfortunately, it’s lacking here. Buffett is too easygoing for that and has a tendency to glance over more personal or difficult topics. His children only really have nice things to say about him, which is a great recipe for family life but not particularly compelling material for a film. To paraphrase Leo Tolstoy in Anna Karenina, every happy family feels the same.

Buffett does have a few notable quirks, and the film shows them off: eating a McDonald’s breakfast every morning, staying in Omaha his whole life rather than seeking the glitz of Wall Street, maintaining personal honesty throughout his career. However, these alone are not enough for the film to build Buffett into the kind of unique or compelling figure who can hold 95 minutes of viewers’ attention.