At one point in the sober and sobering HBO film about the 2008 financial crisis, with Paul Giamatti as stony-faced, mumbling head of the Federal Reserve, Ben Bernanke, I had a sudden flash of a David Letterman stunt. For a few weeks his running joke was to say ”Ben Bernanke,” and have several young women planted in the audience squeal with delight as if he’d mentioned a Jonas brother.
Which is to say, unless you’re a financial wonk, there is nothing sexy about the economy. Luckily, Too Big to Fail has director Curtis Hanson (L.A. Confidential) and an amazing cast as it turns the story of a few tense weeks in September 2008 into a taut drama about the Treasury Department and the Federal Reserve trying to pull the economy back from the brink of total collapse.
Based on Andrew Ross Sorkin’s book, it is a story of ineptitude nearly all around. At the center are William Hurt as Treasury Secretary and former Goldman Sachs head Hank Paulson, and Billy Crudup as Timothy Geithner, then head of the New York Federal Reserve (and of course now Treasury Secretary himself; just the other day he was back, telling us we’d hit the debt ceiling). The action begins as Lehman Brothers is about to collapse and ends with the TARP bailout package to banks; in the middle we see arm-twisting, fear, and desperate maneuvers.
The film spoon feeds us the basics of the economic mess with some bits of clunky dialogue, but shrewdly highlights the back-room drama of financial titans trying to save their golden parachutes, and avoid blame and failure. And, incidentally, maybe avoid a disastrous second Great Depression.
James Woods plays Lehman Brothers chairman Dick Fuld, who sabotages every deal that might have saved the company, insisting, “Real estate is going to come back.” Remember when people said that with a straight face? Refusing to bail out Lehman and unable to create a solution by pressuring other Wall St. banks to help, Paulson lets Lehman go under, only to see the market head into free fall. Almost immediately after, he faces the far worse prospect of insurance octopus AIG failing and creating global economic doom.
Paulson, who as head of Goldman Sachs fought for the very deregulation that led to the crisis, has to go against the economic principles his career was built on, and beg Congress to throw money at the problem. At one point he literally gets down on his knees to Nancy Pelosi. The script tries to make him a flawed hero whose story is fraught with irony, but mostly he’s just very scary any way you look at him, and that’s even more effective.
Hurt has the icy blue eyes to pull this off, in one of the best roles he’s had in years. At a meeting with the heads of the major Wall St. banks, he begins, “We will remember ...” and takes a brief pause, long enough for you to think he’ll be grateful to his friends. Instead, he coldly says “We will remember ... anyone who’s not helpful.” And while he is tortured by his looming failure, it’s clear that his office bumbles some fundamental things, like pressing for Barclays to buy Lehman only to find that the British regulators won’t allow it; no one really bothered to ask.
Crudup’s sharp performance makes Geithner supersmart, pragmatic, more forward-thinking than anyone around him. Topher Grace and Cynthia Nixon are Paulson’s staffers, and an all-star cast - Bill Pullman, Matthew Modine, Tony Shaloub among them – have quite small roles as the heads of investment banks.
By the end, when Paulson has pushed through the TARP bailout giving $700 billion to banks, Bernanke dourly says he hopes they’ll lend out that money, which was the point. Paulson says of course they will, but looks worried. Not worried enough. As a postscript to the film tells us, they didn’t, and it was another year before the economy began to level out.
Do we feel reassured yet? Nah, I didn’t think so.
Too Big to Fail is a stylish drama whose message of economic gloom is as chillingly effective as Paulson’s vampire-cold glare.
The film premieres on HBO tonight. Here’s a quick trailer that captures its high-energy and tension.