Movie Review: Too Big to Fail

Too Big to Fail
Premiers May 23
9 p.m. EST

Early on in Too Big to Fail, Dick Fuld tells his chief financial officer, Erin Callan, "Screw Warren Buffett—we will stand strong and eat Goldman Sachs's lunch!" It's the first of several lines that reaffirm the old adage that tragedy plus time equals comedy gold. The HBO movie, adapted from Andrew Ross Sorkin's tome of the same name, comes nearly three exhaustively forensic years after Lehman Brothers went bust. And as every HBO subscriber will know, Fuld ended up eating a lot of something else. Yet his mildly hysterical delusions, enhanced by age, are an amusing reminder of the heady months in 2008—at least for those who didn't own Lehman stock.

Too Big to Fail, which premieres on May 23, follows the same trajectory as Sorkin's book, from the collapse of Bear Stearns that spring to the rise of TARP in the fall. To the film's credit, it attempts to make many of these still-horrifying moments pretty funny—and squeezes them all into 98 minutes. While the movie doesn't shed much new light on the period, it offers one of the few pleasures left unfulfilled by the gusher of nonfiction thrillers, roman à clefs, wrist-slapping documentaries, and Oliver Stone. The bankers and government officials who rose to prominence in those months are depicted in all their glory and disgrace by real Hollywood actors—most of whom are far better-looking versions of the people they're portraying. (Tim Geithner is pretty handsome, but Billy Crudup? Really?) TARP groupies will delight in the film's attention to detail. Leon, the coffee cart guy parked outside Lehman's office building, gets a chance to extend his five minutes of fame. The hideous toupee worn by Matthew Modine—playing Merrill Lynch Chief Executive Officer John Thain—might be the worst fake movie hair since Burt Reynolds's heyday.

For the uninitiated, director Curtis Hanson—who won an Oscar for writing L.A. Confidential—drops some not-so-subtle hints. A voice-over in an opening scene refers to JPMorgan Chase's (JPM) Jamie Dimon (Bill Pullman) as the "smart" banker; Lloyd Blankfein (Evan Handler) is called the "superstar"; and Citigroup's (C) Vikram Pandit (Ajay Mehta) is called neither. As Hank Paulson (William Hurt) declares, "No one is sure if he's running Citi or Citi is running him." Fuld, played in all his vein-popping glory by James Woods, needs no description at all. Viewers are shown, in no uncertain terms, his ginormous hubris as he screws up a potential deal with Korea Development Bank. After being told by Lehman Chief Operating Officer Bart McDade to stay out of the negotiations, Fuld barges in, scares off the bidders, and blows what could have been a precious lifeline.

In a deviation from the book, however, Too Big to Fail belongs to Paulson. Viewers will experience much of the crisis through his sleepless nights, his afternoons spent vomiting, and his high-minded attempt to save the country from financial ruin—all, in accordance with Christian Science, sans Pepto-Bismol or a single beer. At one point a Treasury staffer offers Paulson some sleeping pills, which the Secretary accepts and then flushes down the toilet. Readers of Paulson's memoir, On the Brink, will remember that the former Dartmouth lineman was sustained during the crisis, in part, by his love of birding. And this unlikely pastime was simply too much for Hanson to ignore. In a scene that probably would have been cut unless it were true, Too Big to Fail opens with Paulson staring at a majestic red-tailed hawk outside his living room window.

Paulson's wingman, Ben Bernanke, receives less screen time, but actor Paul Giamatti makes the most of it. Blessed with the Federal Reserve chairman's perfectly rounded forehead and jowls, Giamatti literally appears in the shadows—a nod to the Fed's éminence grise role. Giamatti, who might as well have been holding a flashlight under his chin and telling a ghost story, portrays Bernanke as the voice of God—a foil to the more outwardly intense Paulson and Crudup's wind-up doll version of Geithner. In one scene, Bernanke tells a room filled with congressmen and bank CEOs that they can either do what he and Paulson are telling them or trigger the next Depression. These fist-pumping moments cast a new light on the shy academic—who knew?—and provide some of the best moments in the movie.

Yet these subtle observations are Too Big to Fail's most substantial contribution to the ever-growing financial crisis narrative. The movie ends, as the book does, with the banks' (begrudging) acceptance of the government's capital injections and Paulson's sincere hope Wall Street will lend out some of the $125 billion it's been given. Yet it didn't work out that way. Banks lent less than they did before, and the government couldn't do anything about it. The film ends by acknowledging that the remaining Wall Street institutions are once again too big to fail, which may be good news for HBO. As Sorkin said last December, "I don't want to write another sequel, but I think there will be one."

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