Taut ‘Too Big to Fail’ takes viewers behind scenes of ’08 economic crisis
If the economy hadn’t hung in the balance, the economic meltdown of 2008 would make for a great tragic play.
Still, the epic story of hubris and greed makes for a gripping, if overly taut HBO film, “Too Big to Fail,” airing Monday. Based on Andrew Ross Sorkin’s best-seller and directed by Curtis Hanson (“L.A. Confidential”), the film goes behind closed doors to reveal how then-Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson (William Hurt) and Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke (Paul Giamatti) strongarmed CEOs of major banks into staving off a full-out crash.
“While this was happening I sort of had a sense of what was going on, and now that I do have a sense I am retroactively scared,” says Cynthia Nixon, who plays Michele Davis, assistant secretary of the treasury for public affairs. “It’s really galling. On a certain level, Hank Paulson and Bernanke were heroes and saved us from what could have been truly cataclysmic.”
The federal bailout was fraught with doubt, over which loomed the specter of economic ruin not seen since the Great Depression. The film focuses on the difficult machinations to reach that point. It’s a complicated, dry and often abstract subject, yet one that affects everyone.
“I’ve been thinking about, reading about the issue for as long as it’s been going on,” Hurt say of the crisis. “My friends and I talk about it. I studied economics in college, so it’s not that alien to me as a person.”
While the other actors were interviewed separately for this article, Hurt, at a press conference last winter, says, “One of the things we did was develop a glossary of terms, a list of characters’ personae and a history of events.”
Like the exceptionally reported book upon which this is based, the film does a solid job of explaining what happened. There is, of course, plenty of blame to go around.
“People act like we are crack dealers,” James Woods as Lehman Brothers Chair- man and CEO Richard Fuld says in the film. “Nobody put a gun to anybody’s head and said, ‘Hey, nimrod, buy a house you can’t afford. And while you’re at it, put a line of credit on that baby and buy yourself a boat.”
Many books, documentaries and TV shows have examined what happened, but this film comes at it from montages of news clips stitched into the narratives of the people behind the major decisions. When financial terminology is flying, it can be an impenetrable subject.
Jim Wilkinson (Topher Grace), chief of staff at the Department of the Treasury, cuts to the essence of the crisis when he says, “Wall Street started bundling home loans together into mortgage-backed securities and selling slices of those bundles to investors. And they were making big money, so they started pushing the lenders saying, ‘Come on, we need more.’ ”
As excellent as the actors are, a movie about meetings and decisions has limits. This feels like a play turned into a film rather than a film adapted from a book. It could be a lot more visual, and it would have been had we had a glimpse into the lavish lifestyles of the Wall Street bosses.
Cynthia Nixon plays Michele Davis, assistant secretary of the treasury for public affairs.