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Take a few steps away from the news churn right now — dominated as it is by an impulsive, pessimistic, misanthropic collector of bankruptcies — and steep in 90 minutes of "Becoming Warren Buffett." The documentary (on the HBO GO service) explores the life and philosophies of arguably the greatest capitalist in American history, the chairman and CEO of Berkshire Hathaway, a company valued as of this writing at more than $400 billion. If you're inclined to take a dim view of billionaires these days, for one perfectly valid reason or another, Buffett and this amiable profile will calm you for a spell. If a guy like Buffett can be worth something like $74 billion, even after giving away tens of billions more to become one of the most generous philanthropists in history, maybe the American experiment still has life left.
Directors Peter W. Kunhardt ("Living With Lincoln") and Brian Oakes ("Jim: The James Foley Story") depict Buffett — now 86, and mentally as spry as a deer — as one of the world's unassuming geniuses, which isn't much of a surprise. In fact, nothing about this film is much of a surprise: Buffett, revered for decades as the Oracle of Omaha, has made his vast fortune not through financial pyrotechnics. Instead, he obsessively hustled and saved from the time he was delivering newspapers and selling gum door-to-door in Nebraska. Then, he waited for compound interest — the eighth wonder of the world, as he puts it — to work its magic.
He also reads obsessively, digests stacks of information about companies (and in the '50s, those were, literally, stacks), buys only when he's ready, and then waits with the patience of a redwood for the returns. "I like to sit and think," he says. "And I spend a lot of time doing that." Also: "If you're emotional about investment, you're not going to do well," Buffett says. "You may have all these feelings about the stock — the stock has no feelings about you."
Riveting, right? Actually, Buffett does suffer blind spots in the form of everyday human matters, as many a solitary numerical genius have before. In this, narratively, we still find relatively little tension (it's a good thing Buffett is quippy and full of homespun wisdom, 'cause he's the epitome of low drama), but we do see, over his decades of self-examination and dedication to improvement, a human life emerge that is not merely rich. It is also full.
Says Charlie Munger, Berkshire Hathaway's vice chairman, who has known Buffet since 1959. "One of the reasons Warren is successful is, he's brutal in appraising his own past. He wants to identify misthinkings and avoid them in the future." That is the ore of a purposeful person, and one who can adapt. For one: Buffett's relationship with Susan, his late wife and sweetheart since forever, was able to endure even after she tired of Omaha and moved for good to San Francisco. Unlike his Republican congressman father, Buffett made a career of rejecting dogma — leading him to conclusions you can only call progressive and feminist. He credits his success to having been born male in America. He figures the odds of that for women in 1930 were one in 80. Winning the "ovarian lottery," he says.
For these and about a dozen other reasons, Buffett comes off as inestimably likable, a hard thing to do in a documentary that doesn't stoop to fawning. Yet, here it is. He is the champion of the ultimate get-rich-slow scheme. He spent decades sorting through the chaos of the American economy and distilling from it an elegant, profitable order. The contrast with another prominent billionaire could not be more stark, or more refreshing.
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