“Warren Buffett, the boy from Nebraska who grew up to be the Wizard of Omaha. What was it about him that allowed him to become the richest man in the world? How did he do it?”
So begins Peter Kunhardt’s documentary on the life of the world’s most famous investor. Becoming Warren Buffett, which premiered January 31 on HBO, attempts to answer this question by focusing on Buffett as a man. There is a bit of discussion about his investing approach, but viewers hoping to learn the Oracle’s methods would be better served reading his annual letters or any of the innumerable books written about value investing. Instead, Becoming Warren Buffett examines the more intimate aspects of Buffett’s life. What was Buffett like as a child? What do his family and close friends think? Who is Warren Buffett, really?
His public persona gives the impression of a folksy everyman who dispenses sage advice in his old age. At 86, Buffett still works full time as CEO of Berkshire Hathaway, the conglomerate that he has controlled for over fifty years. The Oracle shows no signs of slowing down, displaying remarkable energy and vitality for a man his age. With characteristic wit, Buffett describes himself as “physically pretty well-depreciated” and “nearing salvage value.”
However long Buffett remains in the physical realm, he seems destined to live forever in our collective memory. The mythology of Buffett is very much intertwined with American culture, and I think the man himself recognizes this. Indeed, the idealized Buffett is an image carefully curated over many decades. Even in the opening of the film, Buffett describes his teenage self as obsessed with girls and cars—conveniently leaving out the part about the money.
Nevertheless, Becoming Warren Buffett digs below Buffett’s public veneer to uncover the man beneath. Although Buffett remains humble about his abilities, he is clearly a rare example of true genius. As a young man, Buffett displayed an incredible faculty for math and numbers as well as a prodigious memory. Raw talent, a laser-like focus on business, and a dash of luck combined to form a man perfectly wired for the investing game. And for 75 years he hasn’t stopped playing, often to the exclusion of all outside pursuits. Candid interviews with his family reveal a distant father totally consumed by his work. One photograph shows children playing while Buffett sits in the background, his face buried in a newspaper. Buffett himself gives the impression that his relationships were perfect, but the memory of his first wife leaving Omaha to live apart still obviously pains him.
And yet, the overwhelming desire to pile up money clearly isn’t fueled by a need to consume it. Despite his immense wealth, Buffett lives a modest life in the same home that he purchased in 1957. He enjoys the simple pleasures of McDonald’s and Coke, eschews modern technology, and still drives himself to the same unassuming office building every day. This is, of course, integral to Buffett’s charm, but it seems extraordinarily genuine. Just as Buffett never allowed personal relationships to distract him, he wants nothing to do with the material world. His late first wife Susan described him as “cerebral,” while son Peter says that he is a “loner.”
Becoming Warren Buffett succeeds because it doesn’t try to paper over these traits, but instead presents them exactly as they are. A few other personal flaws that author Alice Schroeder discusses in her biography The Snowball (which I previously reviewed here) don’t quite make the cut, though. The documentary treats Buffett’s neediness for female affection with a light touch. We also don’t see any of Buffett’s supposed extreme aversion to criticism and confrontation. The contrast between Buffett’s self-image and what close relations actually see can sometimes appear stark, but the film prefers not to dwell on the Oracle’s selective memory. At one and a half hours, perhaps the documentary could have used an extra thirty minutes. But overall the time is judiciously spent and no segment feels rushed. By the end, viewers will feel like they have gotten to know Buffett the man. For those hoping for a glimpse of the man behind the curtain, Becoming Warren Buffett provides a poignant snapshot.