HBO simplifies financial crisis in ‘Too Big To Fail’
BY PAIGE WISER TV Criticfirstname.lastname@example.org May 19, 2011 7:46PM
William Hurt as U.S. Treasury Secretary Hank Paulson in "Too Big To Fail."
‘TOO BIG TO FAIL’ ★★½
8 to 9:45 p.m. Monday on HBO
Updated: August 20, 2011 12:33AM
I’m probably the intended audience for Monday’s HBO movie: someone who wasn’t unaware of the 2008 financial crisis, but instead chose to obsess on the promising remake of “Knight Rider” and vaguely hope that the whole global-economy thing would work out.
It did, right?
“Too Big to Fail” is essentially an idiot’s guide to the Lehman Brothers collapse, the AIG bailout and the beginnings of the Troubled Asset Relief Program. The problem is that financial idiots (hello!) will still be bewildered by the complicated wranglings and enormous cast, and people familiar with the crisis will be annoyed by the simplistic tone and fictionalized scenes. Characters regularly stop and essentially ask, “Wait. How did we get here?” to help explain it to us at home, which doesn’t ring true. Worse, it’s patronizing.
It’s based on the book Too Big to Fail, by New York Times reporter Andrew Ross Sorkin. The book, well thought of, tells about the crisis from the point of view of the bigwigs pulling the strings. I can see the potential for drama there, but the reality is that the most exciting moments are when older white men in fancy suits civilly discuss the disaster over a breakfast of oatmeal, or on the phone in between racquetball games. There’s a “Right Stuff” moment where they stride purposefully down a hallway in slow motion, but without space helmets or guns or something, they come off a little silly.
I do recommend “Too Big to Fail” as a novelty, though. If you can set aside the distracting notion that these are movie stars lecturing us about greed — I had trouble with that — it’s fun to see famous actors embodying finance’s front line.
Among the stunt casting:
† Paul Giamatti as Ben Bernanke, chairman of the Federal Reserve
† Billy Crudup as Timothy Geithner, the then-president of the Federal Reserve
† James Woods as Dick Fuld, the sputtering chairman and CEO of Lehman Brothers
† Bill Pullman as Jamie Dimon, chairman and CEO of JPMorgan Chase
† Matthew Modine — in a toupee that has to be seen to be believed — as John Thain, chairman and CEO of Merrill Lynch
† Michael O’Keefe as Chris Flowers, a bank-takeover expert
† Cynthia Nixon as Michele Davis, assistant secretary of the Treasury for Public Affairs
† Dan Hedaya as Congressman Barney Frank
† Joey Slotnick as Dan Jester, a U.S. treasury secretary adviser
† Topher Grace as Jim Wilkinson, the snarky U.S. Treasury secretary’s chief of staff
The dialogue is smart, spirited and often profane. They didn’t just drop the ball, explains “Sex and the City’s” Evan Handler as Lloyd Blankfein, chairman and CEO of Goldman Sachs. “They dropped the ball, kicked the coach in the nuts and took a s--- in the quarterback’s mouth,” he says.
William Hurt is very good as U.S. Treasury Secretary Hank Paulsen, who refused to even take sleeping pills during those pressure-filled nights because he’s a Christian Scientist. You’ll want to scream at the screen, “Pepto Bismol is your friend!” He comes across as reasonable, ethical and an avid bird watcher.
Ed Asner, who played Santa Claus in “Elf,” is a similarly magical figure in “Too Big to Fail” as Warren Buffett. When all else fails, he’s the one to call. He’s portrayed as a combination of Santa, God and the catcher in the rye.
Tony Shalhoub is another standout as John Mack, chairman and CEO of Morgan Stanley. It’s a little disconcerting to hear him doing a Southern accent, but he gets some good lines. When he gets the call asking him to merge his investment bank with a commercial bank, he growls, “Great, here comes eHarmony.” Later, he says: “You tell Tim Geithner to f---ing b--- me.”
The movie succeeds in putting a human face on the crisis; you won’t soon forget the spectacle of Paulsen approaching Nancy Pelosi on his knees. And you will learn that the term “bailout” is incorrect. It should be referred to as a “very large purchase assistance package.”
But in my case, a little information is not necessarily a good thing. Sure, I now generally understand what happened, but this is not a movie with a happy ending. In conclusion, we’re told, “In 2009, panicked markets stabilized.” My reaction: What? How? Oh, forget it.
Then we learn that today, 10 banks hold 77 percent of all U.S. bank assets. “They have been declared too big to fail,” reads the last panel ominously.
The real moral of the story seems to be this: It’s never too late to panic.