Wednesday, November 23, 2011

TV Movie Review: Too Big to Fail

Too Big to Fail *** ½
Directed by: Curtis Hanson.
Written by: Peter Gould based on the book by Andrew Ross Sorkin.
Starring: William Hurt (Henry Paulson), James Woods (Richard Fuld), Paul Giamatti (Ben Bernanke), Billy Crudup (Timothy Geithner), Topher Grace (Jim Wilkinson), Cynthia Nixon (Michele Davis), Ayad Akhtar (Neel Kashkari), Edward Asner (Warren Buffett), Michael O'Keefe (Chris Flowers), Joey Slotnick (Dan Jester), Peter Hermann (Christopher Cox), Bill Pullman (Jamie Dimon), Evan Handler (Lloyd Blankfein), Tony Shalhoub (John Mack), Matthew Modine (John Thain), Ajay Mehta (Vikram Pandit), John Heard (Joe Gregory), Kathy Baker (Wendy Paulson), Erin Dilly (Christal West), Amy Carlson (Erin Callan), Beau Baxter (Skip McGee), Chance Kelly (Bart McDade), Chil Kong (Min Euoo Sung), Dan Hedaya (Congressman Barney Frank), Steve Tom (Senator Chris Dodd), Jonathan Freeman (Senator Richard Shelby), Bud Jones (Harry Reid), Linda Glick (Nancy Pelosi).

I think the biggest question people have about the 2008 financial meltdown that America is still recovering from is not how it happened – that’s been pretty well established – but why? Why did the banks invest so heavily in mortgage backed securities that were essentially worthless? Why did lenders give out these mortgages in the first place? And why didn’t the Treasury Department, the SEC, the Fed or Congress do any sort of regulation on this new type of derivative that almost sunk America’s economy. In the HBO film Too Big to Fail (based on the book by Andrew Ross Sorkin), Treasury Secretary Hank Paulson (William Hurt) gives a more honest then you would ever see him give on TV when asked by an aid why there was no regulation. “No one wanted it. We were making too much money”. And that in a nutshell is the real reason things failed. Once people actually started looking into their mortgage backed securities, that they had leveraged their entire bank against, they realized they were worthless crap. But no one looked because they were making too much money.

What becomes clear while watching Too Big to Fail is how nobody really knew just how big of a clusterfuck the whole thing would become. Much of the running time is devoted to the effort to find a private solution for Lehman Brothers, an investment bank that would eventually fail. When the effort starts, they think that Lehman has $15 billion in toxic assets (a better term would be worthless). As it moves along, that number becomes $30 billion and then $70 billion. Then in the midst of the negotiations to save them, it becomes clear that the world’s biggest insurance company, AIG, is in real danger. The idiots that they there had insured all of these mortgage bonds, and when they all crashed, they’d owe billions of dollars they didn’t have to every bank in the world. And if they didn’t pay, than the banks would fail. Whenever they think they have a handle on the problem, something else comes along and knocks them for a loop.

All of this, and much much more, is handled with intelligence by the film. You would think that a film about Wall Street banks, which is essentially made up of men and (a few) women in suits talking in various rooms would be boring. But this one isn’t in the slightest. Part of that is because of the cast assembled for the movie. William Hurt gives a weariness to Hank Paulson, who was once the CEO of Goldman Sachs, who is now watching everything around him crumble. Paul Giamatti has a few nice scenes as Ben Bernanke, who is essentially brought in to scare people to death. James Woods is excellent as Dick Fuld, the CEO of Lehman Brothers, who lets his own ego screw up not just one but two deals that could have saved the company. Ed Asner has essentially a cameo as Warren Buffet, but he seems to be the only one who knows what the hell is going on, and as such, remains at a distance. Topher Grace and Cynthia Nixon are good as Paulson’s underlings, Bill Pullman, Evan Handler, Tony Shaloub, Matthew Modine and Ajay Mehta all fine as other Wall Street CEO’s trying to save their own hides. Billy Crudup as Timothy Geithner, trying very hard to be pragmatic. Peter Hermann as the cowardly head of the SEC. And on and on it goes. This is one of the best ensemble casts you will likely ever see in a TV movie. Many only have a few scenes, but they leave an impression.

The film was directed by Curtis Hanson, whose career after L.A. Confidential (1997) and Wonder Boys (2000) has not really turned out like he planned. But here, he uses his skills effectively. He keeps the pace moving. The screenplay by Peter Gould is densely packed with loads of information and dialogued, and yet it never gets bogged down. You understand what is happening, no matter how technical it all gets.

The film ends with Paulson giving the 10 largest banks in America a total of $125 billion of tax payers money. They do this so that the rest of them won’t fail like Lehman Brothers did, and to free up the credit markets. When the banks have no money, they can’t lend it to anyone, and businesses fail and people lose their homes. But despite the fact that they are essentially saving the banks, the CEO’s still have conditions under which they will except the money – namely, no conditions at all. As one person says “These people brought the American economy to the brink of collapse, and we still can’t put any conditions on this money because they might not take it!”. Exactly. They don’t give a rat’s ass about anyone other than themselves and their profits. They took the money, but things didn’t get any better – they got worse. If you want a clear, succinct portrait of what happened and why, Too Big to Fail offers that.

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