Taut ‘Too Big to Fail’ takes view­ers be­hind scenes of ’08 eco­nomic cri­sis

The Daily Herald - TV Week - - TV Q&A - BY JAC­QUE­LINE CUT­LER

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.

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