Banking on failure
The outlandish events behind the 2008 financial crisis were very real, writes Rob Owen of Scripps Howard News
TELEMOVIE Too Big to Fail – based on the book of the same name by New York Times reporter Andrew Ross Sorkin – is one of those behind-the-scenes process films that depicts moments so outlandish they’d come off as hyperbole if not for the fact they’re based on actual events.
It takes viewers behind closed doors during the September 2008 financial crisis for myriad scenes of banking executives getting dictated to by then-treasury Secretary Henry Paulson (William Hurt) in ornate boardrooms.
Given the topic, Too Big to Fail might seem like a movie made only for policy wonks but, even if you don’t understand the finer points of monetary policy, it’s entertaining because it features that great equaliser in American popular culture: wealthy, well-heeled people behaving like jerks, allowing the less-wealthy a certain superior satisfaction.
In this crisis, there was plenty of blame to go around, from Wall Street fat cats to Main Street homeowners who bought houses they could not afford.
Written by Peter Gould ( Breaking Bad) and directed by Curtis Hanson ( Wonder Boys), Too Big to Fail features cameos by political figures made famous by cable news – such as then-house Speaker Nancy Pelosi (Linda Glick) and Representative Barney Frank (Dan Hedaya) – but spends more time with the likes of then-federal Reserve Bank of New York president Timothy Geithner (Billy Crudup) and Federal Reserve chairman Ben Bernanke (Paul Giamatti). Wealthy business magnate Warren Buffett (Ed Asner) also appears.
If not for the seriousness of the situation – the potential for a new Great Depression – Too Big to Fail could play as a black comedy. A Chinese official lectures Paulson at the Beijing Olympics: ‘‘The amount of debt your country carries is a terrible vulnerability’’. A Treasury flack (Cynthia Nixon, Sex and the City) scolds anyone who refers to ‘‘a very large purchase-assistance package’’ as a bailout (even though it is) and, in an absurd moment, Bernanke questions Paulson’s request to loosen requirements: ‘‘You want me to allow them to raise their leverage so they can buy a bank that’s about to fail because it’s over-leveraged?’’
star James Wood (left) as Richard Fuld
At a relatively brief 98 minutes, the film moves at a fast clip, with urgent background music quickening the pace.
Screenwriter Gould compares Too Big to Fail to a disaster film, just one that’s set during a financial crisis rather than when an asteroid is hurtling toward Earth.
‘‘Economic policy may not be sexy, but the fact that all of us have credit cards and bank accounts means that pretty much all of us have a stake in what was going on,’’ he says.
Hanson says the film falls squarely in the wheelhouse of the kinds of movies he makes: ‘‘Most of the pictures I’ve done have been about people in difficult circumstances trying to figure out their way out.’’
Too Big to Fail: Wednesday, 5.45pm, Showtime Premiere
Too Big To Fail