HBO’s newest TV movie is Too Big to Fail, a tale of the 2008 financial crisis in the United States, based on the book of the same name by New York Times financial columnist Andrew Ross Sorkin. Events follow real life, as Henry Paulson (William Hurt, Damages, Into the Wild), Timothy Geithner (Billy Crudup, Almost Famous, Watchmen), Ben Bernanke (Paul Giamatti, John Adams, Sideways), and their staffs try to prevent the next great depression. After bailing out Bear Sterns, Paulson is determined not to do the same for Lehman Brothers. He gathers the heads of the major investment banks, trying to push them into a private sector solution. When deals fall through, Paulson lets Lehman go bankrupt, and the economy goes from bad to worse as a result. The government employees scramble for another solution before a chain reaction cripples the country.
Adding to the realism are actual news clips from the time, showing the real politicians and reports as the financial system gets worse and worse. These are not actors, played up for dramatic effect. These are real people reporting real stories. And Jon Stewart, ripping John McCain a (deservedly) new one.
Is it a fair and balanced look at the fall of 2008? That’s debatable. The writers have an opinion and a slant, as any dramatic work must, and so there is some bias towards certain parties. But there is also some grey area and debate, and so Too Big to Fail tries hard, and mostly succeeds, to at least give most everyone the benefit of the doubt. Or at least consideration that issues are complicated.
The sprawling cast is top notch. There is a lot of star power, many in small roles, such as Ed Asner as Warren Buffett. Yet, not a single actor stands out as being inferior to the others. If anything can be said about HBO’s films, it’s that they do not shirk on casting. Each actor and actress shows a depth that really brings the characters, which are closely based on real people, to life in an authentic way. Most are matched quite well in looks, aided by expert makeup, though Crudup probably least physically resembles his counterpart, of the primary three.
The bankers themselves are played by Tony Shalhoub (Monk, Wings), Evan Handler (Californication, Sex and the City), and Bill Pullman (Torchwood, Independence Day), among others. They are not really the blatant villains, as one might expect. While the companies they represent do take a large portion of the blame for what they have done, the men who run them generally come across as hard workers, willing to make sacrifices. They want to save their companies, but they are also willing to make a move that benefits the system as a whole, which in a roundabout way, does save their companies.
That doesn’t mean the bankers are heroes, by any stretch of the imagination. Obviously, it is because of them and their companies that the chain reaction of disaster begins. They also pocket American tax payer bailout money, which they will only take without strings, and continue to pay out huge bonuses. The public is justified in their anger at them. But because the film is made up mainly of closed door meetings of individuals, these things are sometimes downplayed, making them seem like decent guys. Hallway rants by Paulson allude to another side of the story.
Actually, the people who come off the worst in the film are James Woods (Shark), as the head of Lehman who hesitates to try to make more money, not realizing it’s too late to save the bank, and Congress, especially John McCain and the GOP. They are all slow to act, and work against what Paulson insists is necessary. It’s a battle to get them to do what has to be done, and because of them, the whole system almost goes belly up several times.
Also looking bad are the British, who have a chance to help, but sabotage a good deal that may have saved the system at the last minute. Furthermore, they begin to freeze credit after Lehman’s collapse, worsening the situation. While Europe will be deeply hurt by what happens on Wall Street, they show an unwillingness to believe that America can take them down, too.
Asians also have a chance to step in, but choose not to. One Asian company does help buy one of the American banks, but several deals with friends in the Pacific fall through as they back away from toxic assets. And who can really blame them?
Paulson, who is really the central character, has a staff that includes actors Topher Grace (That ’70’s Show, Spider-man 3) and Cynthia Nixon (Sex and the City, The Big C). They try very hard to not only help their boss fix things, but also to keep him healthy, as Paulson is plagued by a lack of sleep, and looks worse and worse as the movie progresses. They are the heroes of the story, tirelessly putting their lives on hold to save the country. Whether that is true or not, the way the trio comes across makes it very easy to root for them.
The story itself is a gripping tale of horror. What makes it even scarier is that not only is is true, but the problems shown are far from solved. A scroll at the end tells viewers that the same conditions exist today, and the economy could still easily go over the precipice, since the government has failed to act to change anything significant in the two and a half years since the events unfolded. It’s a chilling realization, not one that gives any comfort.
Too Big to Fail will repeat numerous times on HBO over the next few eeks. If you have not caught it yet, make sure to do so soon.