The Critic: In Bil­lions, Show­time serves up Law & Or­der: Wall Street

With Bil­lions, fi­nance drama en­ters its golden age

Bloomberg Businessweek (Asia) - - CONTENTS - By Shee­lah Kol­hatkar

You can al­most pic­ture the pitch meet­ing be­tween the cre­ators of the Wall Street le­gal drama Bil­lions and a team of suits at Show­time. It’s a show about a hedge fund man­ager, the pro­duc­ers would have said, and a sus­pi­cious phar­ma­ceu­ti­cal trade. And a bunch of se­cu­ri­ties fraud in­ves­ti­ga­tors. The ca­ble tele­vi­sion ex­ec­u­tives would have shud­dered at the words “hedge fund,” a term that few New York­ers even un­der­stand, let alone those out­side the fi­nan­cial cap­i­tal. And it only gets worse from there.

Hol­ly­wood has long con­sid­ered the fi­nan­cial world to be fa­tally bor­ing— which, con­sid­er­ing the vast sums of money, drama, and cor­rup­tion cours­ing through it, rep­re­sents a ma­jor cre­ative fail­ing. With the movies The Wolf of Wall Street, Mar­gin Call, and The Big Short, and now the se­ries Bil­lions, pre­mier­ing Jan. 17, the en­ter­tain­ment in­dus­try looks to fin­ish the job. But if any­thing, it un­der­sells how in­sane things can re­ally get.

Much of what goes on at hedge funds in­volves guys wear­ing chinos tap­ping at com­put­ers, which isn’t ex­actly edge-ofy­our-seat ac­tion. It’s a nar­ra­tive chal­lenge that I’ve thought about a great deal while writ­ing a forth­com­ing book about the story that in­spired Bil­lions, the decade­long pur­suit of Steven Co­hen, the founder of SAC Cap­i­tal Ad­vi­sors, by the Se­cu­ri­ties and Ex­change Com­mis­sion, the FBI, and the Man­hat­tan U.S. At­tor­ney’s of­fice. For­tu­nately, in this case, re­al­ity is weirder than any­thing you could make up: SAC traders brib­ing sources with lob­sters, smash­ing hard drives, and be­ing forced to cross-dress. Bil­lions’ cre­ators—pro­ducer/writ­ers Brian Kop­pel­man and David Le­vien, and fi­nan­cial jour­nal­ist An­drew Ross Sorkin—san­i­tized some of the de­tails, amped up the sex, and mas­saged it all into the fa­mil­iar for­mat of a le­gal drama or po­lice pro­ce­dural. For the most part, it works.

The ac­tion cen­ters on Bobby Ax­el­rod, the man­ager of an im­mensely suc­cess­ful hedge fund called Axe Cap­i­tal, which is housed in an of­fice that looks like an art gallery. Many el­e­ments of Ax­el­rod’s uni­verse come from Co­hen’s life, es­pe­cially the clouds of sus­pi­cion from se­cu­ri­ties reg­u­la­tors that sur­round him. But be­yond the sur­face, the two bear lit­tle re­sem­blance. Axe, played by Damian Lewis, isn’t a so­cially awk­ward, reclusive trad­ing sa­vant, as some have de­scribed his real-life coun­ter­part. Rather, he’s hand­some and lik­able, with a smooth ruth­less­ness that bor­ders on scary.

The pro­duc­ers take sim­i­lar lib­er­ties with Co­hen’s neme­sis, the U.S. at­tor­ney for the South­ern District of New York, Preet Bharara. Here, he’s known as Chuck Rhoades, played with in­spired un­ease by Paul Gia­matti, who chan­nels in­se­cu­rity into cold-blooded am­bi­tion in his des­per­ate pur­suit of Ax­el­rod. “Axe is no or­di­nary bil­lion­aire—he’s an icon of the wealth of our age,” Rhoades says. “And he’s a fraud.” While Co­hen’s char­ac­ter got an upgrade, Bharara, who is In­dian Amer­i­can, will prob­a­bly not love be­ing de-eth­ni­cized and de­picted as a prickly, power-hun­gry schlub, but the char­ac­ter ad­just­ments make it eas­ier to root for the bad guy against our bet­ter judg­ment. The best char­ac­ter of all may be Rhoades’s wife, Wendy, played by Mag­gie Siff, who works as an in-house shrink at Axe Cap­i­tal, mak­ing the pro­fes­sional drama per­sonal. (In re­al­ity, a now de­ceased psy­chi­a­trist named Ari Kiev roamed SAC’s halls, of­fer­ing coach­ing ser­vices to Co­hen’s traders.)

In the sixth episode, Rhoades has a brief ex­change with his deputy, Bryan Con­nerty (Toby Leonard Moore), in which Con­nerty pleads with his boss not to wuss out and set­tle the case. “I just don’t want Axe to walk away with a fine and a fam­ily of­fice,” Con­nerty says. “I just want to take this one to trial, let the jury de­cide.” Close read­ers of the post-fi­nan­cial cri­sis busi­ness pages know that, while SAC Cap­i­tal faced heavy fines, Co­hen him­self never saw the in­side of a court­room, let alone a jail cell. Just this month, he reached a fa­vor­able set­tle­ment with the SEC on one of the fi­nal lin­ger­ing charges. In th­ese venge­ful mo­ments, Bil­lions seems most like a typ­i­cal crime show. What’s a good le­gal drama, af­ter all, if the pros­e­cu­tor doesn’t get his man? <BW>

THE REAL-LIFE STEVEN CO­HEN CASE IS CRA­ZIER THAN FIC­TION

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