Pity the director of a financial thriller. In an action film, the protagonist looks down the barrel of a gun and has to save the day. In a financial thriller, the protagonist looks at a spreadsheet and has to -- what exactly? Bailout or merger? Not the same sense of urgency.
It also helps if there's a protagonist to root for. In Too Big to Fail, the HBO version Andrew Ross Sorkin's dissection of the Wall Street meltdown of 2008, the filmmakers have ordained Treasury Secretary Hank Paulson the hero who saves the day. Or saves Wall Street from itself, it's not entirely clear. While there is a case to be made for Paulson it's hard to have much sympathy for the former CEO of Goldman Sachs. Like everyone else in this tale he saw this coming and did next to nothing to stop it. "We were making too much money," he ruefully tells one underling.
Watching TBTF is a mixed experience. The financial geeks will love comparing the actors to their real-life counterparts -- Matthew Modine as Robocop, I mean Merrill Lynch's John Thain and Tony Shalhoub as Morgan Stanley's John Mack -- but I doubt regular citizens will realize how bad things were not three years ago. Although we have high unemployment, soaring gas prices and a bloated Wall Street, it all almost went away back in the fall of '08. McDonalds and GE almost didn't make payroll and insurance behemoth AIG's potential collapse would have grounded and stalled nearly every airliner and train in the country. Would you set foot on an airplane that wasn't insured?
So why make a movie on such an unsexy topic? TBTF might not work as entertainment unless you're a regular reader of Business Insider and don't giggle when you hear "Fannie and Freddie," but it is a good lesson of how we got here and what was at stake. It's safe to say that this film will be played for high school and college classes to show how close we came to the edge. It will also be shown in cultural anthropology lectures to demonstrate the hubris and insane risk of smart white guys who did some very dumb things.
Director Curtis Hanson (LA Confidential, 8 Mile) does everything he can to make this exciting and compelling but in the end he has to resort to characters explaining what a credit default swap is and why the banks needed the federal bailout but balked and squawked at any conditions attached to the money. Clips from money honeys Erin Burnett help move the story along and Cynthia Nixon, formerly of Sex and the City, plays Paulson's pr Yoda Michele Davis, who acts as our stand-in. She nearly gasps when she says, "they are taking all of our money and they don't want to do the right thing?"
The performances are solid if the opposite of sexy. Billy Crudup tries to keep cool as 'in over his head' Chairman of the Federal Reserve Bank of New York Timothy Geithner while James Wood thrashes as Richard Fuld, the furious leader of the tanking Lehman Brothers. He is going to get the same deal Bear Stearns got in the opening of the film, dammit or he is going to go James Woods on one and all. And why not? The movie opens with Bear on the rocks and Fuld is convinced that a GOP president is not going to let a Wall Street bank fail in an election year.
Paul Giamatti gets to deliver Ben Bernanke's soliloquy on the Great Depression while he looks as if he is about to pass out but the film belongs to William Hurt as Paulson. The actor brings the man's frustration, pain and desperation as he tries to keep the country and the entire world from total collapse. In a room full of raging egos, he orders the bank CEOs to take a bailout but makes no provision for bonuses, reducing real risk in the future or lending money to clients in the short term. In one scene, he bows before Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi as he begs for the newly Democratic-controlled Congress to save Wall Street. "I didn't know you were Catholic, Henry," she says shaking her head.
In the final scene, the deal has been accepted, the banks will accept funds, and mergers will be made to make the financial giants that were once too big even larger. Giamatti's Bernanke looks like he is breathing for the first time in weeks until he asks one nagging question. The deal came with no stipulation that banks will start lending money again to people and small businesses. "They'll do this, right?" he asks.
Oh, Ben. Goldman Sachs, BofA, State Street, Morgan Stanley, et al just got billions of free US dollars. It's bonus time. Phil Albinus is the former editor-in-chief of Advanced Trading. He has nearly two decades of journalism experience and has been covering financial technology and regulation for nine years. Before joining Advanced Trading, he served as editor of Waters, a monthly trade journal ... View Full Bio