Will it surprise anyone to learn that greed gets the blame for the hellacious Wall Street mess chronicled in the HBO film Too Big To Fail? That’s not say this behind-the-scenes saga is not enlightening – for it is, and balanced and crisply paced by director Curtis Hanson, and beautifully acted. In its sizeable cast, my favorites of whom were William Hurt as a mellow-voiced, almost soulful Treasury Secretary Hank Paulson, Paul Giamatti as Ben Bernanke and Cynthia Nixon as public affairs advisor Michele Davis, there is one spot-on performance after another…
But what’s best about this dramatic treatment of disastrous recent history is also what’s worst about it – that it boils the problem down to human and systemic failings that are unlikely ever to be rectified.
Witness this scene, which occurs mid-way through, when Davis is being briefed on how she can possibly explain the crisis to waiting reporters. “Wall Street started bundling home loans together and selling slices of those bundles to investors,” she’s told by her colleagues, who include Topher Grace as Jim Wilkinson. “They started making really big money. So they started pushing the lenders, saying come on, we need more loans. So the lenders went bottom feeding, lowered their criteria. The banks knew it was risky, so they bought a kind of insurance, called a credit default swap. AIG was the insurer who took this risk on -- because of the fees --hundreds of millions in fees. When the teaser rates ran out, there were defaults. Mortgages tank, and AIG has to pay them off. It can’t -- it goes under. And every bank they insured books massive losses on the same day. And then they go under. It all comes down.”
“And what do I say when they ask me why it wasn’t regulated?” asks Nixon.
“No one wanted it,” says Paulson, with resignation. “They were making too much money.”
I didn’t want to see anyone get off easily in this telling. But what the screenplay by Peter Gould makes clear is that hardly anyone was in favor of the government bailout known as TARP – not even the failing banks, and certainly not Paulson. After no other solution had gelled, it emerged as the only alternative to an unimaginable collapse.
“The only way to get this done is to scare them shitless,” Paulson tells Bernanke as the two men prepare to take their request for $700 billion to the House Financial services committee.
“That should be easy,” Bernanke replies. “I’m scared shitless myself.”
Bill Pullman plays Jamie Dimon, chairman of JP Morgan Chase and a banker who was generally seen as a force for good in the attempt to shore up the system. I talked to Pullman the day Too Big To Fail premiered. As a result of his role, he says, he’s been engaged in many a conversation about what went on.
“It’s been really interesting to see what people remembered from what happened,” Pullman said, “and how quickly things can get away from the truth. To me, the situation was clearly the result of over-deregulation. But two years later, the general populace is afraid that we can’t put regulations on these finance guys or they will stop being the juggernauts of job creation.”
“It’s astounding to me,” he went on, “That in a country where there is an ever-growing divide between rich and poor, that people won’t accept the need for regulation on banks, and salaries, and so on.”
Pullman expressed his hope that enough people will watch the movie, rather than tuning out in favor of something they deem more entertaining.
I’ll admit that there are times in this movie when all the men in suits seem to blur together, and the accretion of dispiriting facts in the middle can feel like a grueling NPR broadcast, a reiteration of events so sickening that Paulson heaves up his breakfast as act two draws to a close.
But it builds to a dynamite third act, in which so very much that still matters hangs in the balance. If only I didn’t know how it ultimately turned out, as Bernanke and Paulson still don’t in this final exchange:
“I hope they use the money the way we’re asking them to,” says a nervous Bernanke after the bailout to the banks is approved. “They will lend it out, won’t they?”
“Of course they will,” says Paulson, chuckling confidently. And then his doubts beset him: “Of course they will.”
Here's more on Too Big To Fail from Emmy Watch: TV Movie Race.
[Images courtesy of HBO]