Thursday, May 26, 2011

Review: HBO’s Too Big to Fail

On Monday evening, I sat down to watch “Too Big to Fail” — HBO’s adaptation of Andrew Ross Sorkin’s best selling book of the same name. Sorkin’s magnum opus does not attempt to explain why the crisis happened; but rather, detail the specifics of what happened. Day by day, bank by bank, the crisis is unveiled through the stories of various bankers, Fed and Treasury officials.

As a piece of entertainment, I strongly recommend it. It is a fantastic ensemble cast filled with terrific actors. William Hurt as Hank Paulson is simply riveting. James Woods turns Dick Fuld into a comtemptable, clueless jackass. Paul Giammatti plays Ben Bernanke with a viciously dry wit I did not know the Chairman possessed. The rest of the cast is every bit as good.

As someone who followed the crisis closely, the movie depiction of the parties involved gets the standard Hollywood over-simplification and glamorization. Its a ragtag team brought together to fight incredible odds against evil, uncontrollable forces. We should expect a mash up turning this into the Lord of the Rings any day now.

Jesse Eisinger makes the following wry observation about the film version:

“The movie is set up in the Hollywood conventional way: A gang of misfits, each with a special expertise, is brought together for an impossible mission. There’s Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson, steely eyed at the moment of truth. There’s New York Federal Reserve head Timothy Geithner, the athlete (he doesn’t just jog, but also plays what appears to be squash). And then there’s Federal Reserve chairman Ben Bernanke, the professor with a heart of gold and secret knowledge of the Great Depression.

Ostensibly it’s a story of their success against all odds. Michael Kinsley, reviewing the movie in the New York Times, labeled Hank Paulson the “hero” of the account.

Except that the movie actually depicts something entirely different: failure upon failure. “Too Big To Fail” The Movie isn’t the story of how the Three Musketeers saved the global economy. It’s a story of how the three didn’t see the financial crisis coming; hadn’t prepared for it; made mistake after mistake as it was cresting; and then, in their moment of triumph, made their most colossal blunder of all.” (my emphasis)

In his Pro Publica article, Eisinger explains in far greater detail the subtext which the film almost inadvertently slips in.

I strongly recommend you see the movie; it is terrific entertainment. But I also suggest that afterwards, you plow through Eisinger’s full review — just so you understand what is fact and what has been fictionalized for your entertainment


In HBO’s ‘Too Big to Fail,’ the Heroes Are Really Zeroes

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