I’ve written several articles skewering HBO for producing political projects destined to air immediately prior to the 2012 election, where the vast majority of the cast and crew are passionate Barack Obama supporters, and where the content is aimed at the Democrat’s two favorite Republican villains: Sarah Palin and Dick Cheney. So, when I sat down to watch HBO’s Too Big to Fail, I prepared myself for the worst. What I didn’t expect was the big surprise awaiting me.
Too Big to Fail, which premieres on HBO on May 23, 2011, features a star studded cast recounting the events that led to the financial crisis and bailouts by the U.S. government in 2008. It is a mini-series packed into a 98-minute made-for-television movie where several essential characters are quickly introduced and where finance and economics are casually discussed. It may help if one has a baseline of knowledge about the crisis before watching the movie. If one doesn’t know who Henry Paulson, Ben Bernanke, and Timothy Geithner are or what Lehman Brothers, Goldman Sachs, and AIG are, it may prove slightly difficult to follow.
Although the Director, Curtis Hanson (L.A. Confidential, 8 Mile), was limited to telling a very long and complicated story in a very short amount of time, he was able to skillfully pull it off. Perhaps this is because the screenwriter, Peter Gould (Breaking Bad), deftly adapted Andrew Ross Sorkin’s 2009 prize winning New York Times Bestseller, Too Big to Fail.
The cast was right out of a Robert Altman film, there was a large number of well known actors including William Hurt (Paulson – Sec. Treasury), James Woods (Fuld – Lehman Bros), Paul Giamatti (Bernanke – Chair, Federal Reserve), Bill Pullman (Dimon – JPMorgan Chase), Ed Asner (Buffet – Berkshire Hathaway), Billy Crudup (Geithner – President, Federal Reserve), Matthew Modine (Thain – CIT Group), Tony Shalhoub (Mack – Morgan Stanley), Topher Grace (Wilkinson), Cynthia Nixon (Davis), and many others. They all looked and played their parts very well with the exception that there seemed to be no effort made toward sounding like the people they played. It was difficult to get past the notable voices of the actors. Paul Giamatti sounds like Paul Giamatti and nothing like Ben Bernanke. Hurt sounded nothing like Paulson. Crudup nothing like Geithner. Perfection wasn’t necessary, but it seemed as though there was little to no effort made at all by the actors to at least sound a little more like the real people they were portraying and less like themselves.
The story opens on a shot of Ronald Reagan. It is news footage of a speech he gives on deregulation. Credits play as we see an image of Clinton signing a piece of legislation as the audio of newsmakers make mention that this is Congress’ bill being singed. Alan Greenspan is seen and states, “Don’t regulate for regulation’s sake,” which is followed by Bush proclaiming everyone should live out the American dream and own their own home. Miscellaneous clips talks of high profits and subprime loans, and then mortgage meltdown and government bailout.
At this point, I am thinking this film is going to be about blame… and that blame is going to be deregulation ushered in by Reagan, the Republican Congress during the Clinton years, Bush 43, and Reagan through Bush’s Federal Reserve appointee, Alan Greenspan.
This prompts me to check the cast and crew to see who they support and if they are bringing their agenda to this story in their hopes to rewrite history and put Republicans in a negative light and Democrats in a positive light before the election in 2012. And, of course, the Director and the Writer are both ardent Obama supporters. All those at HBO support Obama like Co-President Eric Kessler, Co-President Richard Plepler, President of HBO entertainment Sue Naegle, President of HBO Films Len Amato and Executive Producers Paula Weinstein, Carol Fenelon, and Ezra Swerdlow. Even the Cinematographer Kramer Morgenthau and Casting Director Alexa Fogel have contributed to Obama’s 2008 campaign. And the Obama supporting list of actors is long too: Topher Grace, William Hurt, Matthew Modine, Cynthia Nixon, and Amy Carlson. As if that’s not enough, there are many other ardent left-wingers like Paul Giamatti, Bill Pullman, Tony Shalhoub, and Ed Asner.
Then the story opens on James Woods playing Dick Fuld, Chairman and CEO of Lehman Brothers… an ardent Democrat and Obama supporter. James Woods stands out as the political maverick in the cast. In a recent interview with New York Magazine, Woods is quoted as saying, “I’ve always said that the next Obama slogan should be, ‘Barack Obama: Putting America Out of Business,’ because that’s what he’s doing.” So I decided to turn off my bias filter and give this story a chance.
As the story unfolded, I saw that the villains in this film weren’t the Republicans, rather it was a single villain… the total and complete financial collapse of our nation, or as Bernanke puts it, “[replaying] the depression of the 1930s. Only this time… far, far worse.” So, regardless of any one American’s political affiliation watching this film, total and complete financial collapse is an enemy we can all collectively desire to defeat.
The heroes, however, that’s a little more complicated. The actual heroes of the story are Republicans Henry Paulson (Secretary of the Treasury), Ben Bernanke (Chairman of the Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve), and Independent Timothy Geithner (President of the Federal Reserve Bank of New York). They artfully maneuver their way through the minefield of economic collapse. Bear Stearns has already collapsed, Lehman Brothers is on the brink, Merrill Lynch next, and with all this going on, AIG – the safety net for all these creditors – was in the process of imploding from its own lack of liquidity and inability to meet its obligations. If AIG falls, all the banks fall. People would pull their money out of their banks and there would be no George Bailey (Jimmy Stewart) trying to stop the “run on the bank” by convincing his depositors to take only what they need from his honeymoon stash. America, as we know it, would be in ruins.
Every maneuver in their quest to stabilize the markets is met with unpredictable reactions. Once they believe they’ve averted disaster, the pundits, investors, and citizens react differently than expected. It’s a reminder of Nobel winning economist F.A. Hayek’s precept that, “The curious task of economics is to demonstrate to men how little they really know about what they imagine they can design.”
But in the end, as we all know, it was capital injections in the form of a Troubled Asset Relied Plan (TARP) that would “save the day.” In short, the plan would see the U.S. government purchase assets and equity from all financial institutions, even if they didn’t need it, in order to stabilize and strengthen the financial sector. As Bernanke put it, the upside would be stabilizing banks faster, the downside would be nationalizing a few banks. Their plan to soften the blow was that they would force private banks to participate in this plan under law, but that the government would not have a voting interest or the ability to tell the banks how they use the money injected into their coffers… leaving the question to the viewer, “They will lend it out, won’t they?”
But, was TARP the right solution? If one believes it was, then the heroes of this story are without a doubt Republicans Paulson and Bernanke. But, if one believes it wasn’t the right solution, then the Republicans are just kicking the can down the road. Regardless, the story is a quest for a private solution, according to Paulson.
As Republican public relations guru Jim Wilkson (Topher Grace) says at one point, “You just can’t hand the banks massive piles of cash. Nobody’s going to go for it. To the Republicans, it’s nationalization. To the Democrats, it’s a bailout. And the banks are going to go ballistic.”
The story is well crafted and builds suspense out of the unexciting topics of finance and economics. There were parts that bothered me, like making the Republican Chairman of the Securities and Exchange Commission, Christopher Cox, look like an immature boob, or Republican presidential candidate Senator McCain look like he is clueless on economic matters contrasted by Senator Obama’s grip on the subject, or simplistically blaming deregulation while omitting the fault of Carter’s Community Reinvestment Act of 1977, or that derivatives and subprime loans were born during Clinton’s presidency, or more importantly that in 2006 Republicans pleaded with the Democratically-controlled Congress to begin taking measures by pulling the reigns back on Fannie and Freddie to mitigate the impending economic disaster.
Those criticisms, however, were offset by so many of the lines delivered by Topher Grace’s character, Jim Wilkson, who best resembled the attitudes and feelings of most Americans during this time. At one point, it is suggested that the government purchases up the toxic assets of the banks, to which he responds, “Ohhh, call it cash for trash,” he also calls nationalization “the N-word” and that it is un-American, and he suggests that the government running the banks would be like the government running the Post Office, which they “run like a dream.” Another character addresses the issue that the government having the ability to dictate compensation would be the biggest “brain drain this country has ever seen.” And House Speaker Nancy Pelosi is characterized as something like the head of the Mafia. Her character comes across as an elitist snob, which I particularly enjoyed.
The movie was a surprise. Although it wasn’t 100 percent balanced, it was enough for this right-winger to actually enjoy it. And the filmmakers did a pretty decent job packing in a lot of characters and a lot of story into a short amount of time. If Obama-loving HBO can pull off the upcoming Sarah Palin story, Game Change, and the Dick Cheney movie, Angler, with the same deftness and fairness, I will be pleasantly surprised. Better yet… I will be astonished.