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HBO's 'Too Big to Fail': To the Financial Precipice... Or, Redeeming Hank Paulson
May 25, 2011  | By David Sicilia
[In which our resident TVWW business historian and professor takes a very informed view of HBO's telemovie about the financial crisis, and pronounces it complex yet invaluable. "Watch Too Big to Failmore than once," he concludes. "You'll need to, and it's worth it"... -- DB]

When it comes to the recent financial crisis, television has been slow on the uptake.

Last year, Charles Ferguson won an Oscar for his documentary Inside Job. And publishers already have stocked a small library of collapse-genre titles, with another appearing this week (All the Devils Are Here, by Bethany McLean and Joe Nocera).

Drawing on one of those titles (Andrew Ross Sorkin's Too Big To Fail: The Inside Story of How Wall Street and Washington Fought to Save the Financial System -- and Themselves), HBO has given us the first made-for-TV movie on the debacle that nearly imploded our banking and financial system. It premiered Monday, and is repeated, among other play dates, Saturday at 9:45 p.m. ET on HBO.

Too Big To Fail's production values are sleekly worthy of its well-heeled cast of investment bankers and government top dogs, and its pacing captures the weekly, then daily, then hourly compression of harrowing events. It is a remarkably successful take on a complicated and potentially bewildering subject.


Like Watergate, the financial meltdown was not one event, but a cascade of interconnected events with a sprawling cast of characters. The movie navigates this thicket by centering the story on Treasury Secretary Henry "Hank" Paulson (played by William Hurt) and, for the first half, on the decline and fall of Lehman Brothers.

Paulson's reputation did not fare the mid-2008 events well. In key press conferences, he projected deer-in-the-headlights bafflement. His, um, brief request to Congress for $750 billion of bailout funds -- three pages with no strings attached -- was attacked for its odd mix of desperation and chutzpah, and went down in defeat. Many also took note that the billionaire and former Goldman Sachs CEO allowed one of his former investment banking rivals (Lehman) to slide under the wheels of the bankruptcy bus.

In the hands of actor Hurt and director Curtis Hanson (Lucky You, 8 Mile, L.A. Confidential) Paulson is portrayed as brilliant, sure-footed, wise, and politically astute. Even though the government already had rescued Bear Stearns, everyone expected the same for Lehman, and that Paulson would turn around and do the same for insurance behemoth AIG


Paulson, though, is committed to a "private sector solution." Lehman Chairman and CEO Dick Fuld (played pitch-perfect by James Woods) is incredulous. In one of the few near-schlocky scenes, Paulson assembles the head of the major banks and tells them to pony up a billion or so each to help rescue Lehman.

We have seen this before -- in every mafia flick when the heads of the Families gather for a crisis summit. The Big Deal is proposed. A couple of outliers protest. Then one says "I'm in" ... dramatic pause....

The film takes a risk by starting midstream with the Lehman episode. Halfway through, it slows for a clunkily staged lesson in the mechanics of the housing crisis. Some, though, will find this Securitization 101 interlude useful.

Most of the time, Too Big To Fail propels forward at a fairly advanced level, especially when we watch Paulson and New York Fed Chairman Timothy Geithner (Billy Crudup) orchestrate mergers among the giants, jockey with foreign governments, and turn Goldman and Morgan Stanley into commercial banks in the blink of an eye.

Fannie and Freddie, Bank of America, AIG, Warren Buffett (Ed Asner), the Japanese, the Chinese, the British, the French, General Electric -- whether Paulson was in fact the lynchpin, and juggled it all while (spoiler alert, literally) throwing up only once, is a matter of some dispute.

We come away understanding that each bailout case was different; that finance is now more concentrated than ever; and that not every Wall Street investment banker was a greedy scumbag. Which is a lot more than I saw in the ostensibly more sophisticated Inside Job.

Watch Too Big To Fail more than once. You'll need to, and it's worth it.


When Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke (played by Paul Giamatti) turns from milquetoast professor into a prophet of doom to explain that finance has the power to create and the power to destroy, and warns that the world as we know it will cease to exist within days if Congress refuses to act, that wasn't cheap melodrama.

It was the spot-on truth.

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