HBO has a calculated knack for ensuring it remain top of mind in other elite bastions, which helps explain what might be called its Washington trilogy: “Recount,” the upcoming “Game Change” and, in between, “Too Big to Fail,” an entertaining if slightly dry account of the 2008 government bailout of the financial industry, as viewed over the shoulder of then-Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson, whose agony is deftly conveyed by William Hurt. Scads of big-name actors appear in expanded cameos, while director Curtis Hanson mostly succeeds in crafting a thriller in expensive suits, where billions are brandished like broadswords.
“Too Big’s” closest cousin, actually, would be “Barbarians at the Gate,” which chronicled the high-stakes takeover battle for RJR Nabisco. Yet while that 1993 HBO film had James Garner and the satirical wit of writer Larry Gelbart going for it, this one hews a little more closely to sobriety, with less satisfying results.
Working from the book by New York Times columnist Andrew Ross Sorkin (fleetingly seen, appropriately, as a reporter), the movie starts somewhere in the middle — after the fall of Bear Stearns, as Lehman Bros., the U.S.’ fourth-largest investment bank, approaches freefall.
“The storm always passes,” insists Lehman’s agitated chief, Dick Fuld (a terrific James Woods), who keeps reminding anyone who’ll listen that the stock was in the mid-60s just a few months earlier.
Fairly soon, though, it becomes apparent Lehman has to be saved, as Paulson, then-president of New York’s Federal Reserve Bank Timothy Geithner (Billy Crudup), Federal Reserve chairman Ben Bernanke (Paul Giamatti) and Paulson’s staff try to engage in Brinks-truck brinkmanship.
This requires seeking to wrangle CEOs of the U.S.’ biggest banks, who will no doubt be amused, or not, to see who plays them in the movie.
In order to keep track of the sprawling cast and make sense of the near-incomprehensible economic parlance about “derivatives” and toxic assets, Hanson resorts to a pair of stilted devices: Introducing each player with onscreen chyrons, and occasionally having somebody ask, “Please explain how this could happen,” triggering a “Destroying the Economy for Dummies” soliloquy.
Finally, Hanson peppers the drama with news clips, the result being that financial anchors Erin Burnett and Maria Bartiromo (the real versions) garner almost as much screen time as any member of the cast except Hurt.
Paulson doesn’t come across as a hero, exactly, but somebody who recognizes “a catastrophic mess” when he sees one, requiring a dramatic response. At its best, “Too Big to Fail” captures the inherent dysfunction in the system, which ensures that a perfect solution — especially against the backdrop of an election year — is never an option; instead, the parties fumble for something they can sell to the various constituencies in the political and financial worlds. Nationalizing the banks, for example, is proposed, but dismissed by one of Paulson’s aides (Cynthia Nixon) as “un-Republican.”
Speaking for the financial class, JPMorgan Chase CEO Jamie Dimon (Bill Pullman) urges the assembled bankers to suck it up and commit to help bail out Lehman, noting that when Main Street looks at Wall Street, “They think we’re overpaid assholes” — an assessment that translates equally well to their big-media counterparts.
For HBO, though, a project such as this generates dividends that go well beyond ratings — drawing attention from heavyweights not just in media but in politics and finance.
In short, it’s a movie whose very subject matter renders it too big to fail.