The butler did it.
That’s the clichéd ending to many a mystery. The postscript to “Too Big to Fail,” an HBO movie about the 2008 financial crisis, reads like this: “10 Banks now hold 77 percent of all U.S. bank assets. They have been declared too big to fail.”
Before that postscript came the declaration that it wasn’t the butler at all. It was the banks, because, as the film’s main character declares, “Wall Street has a gambling problem.”
If you watch this film and don’t get angry or scared, it’s because you’re part of the high-income world of big business and big finance that’s part of the problem. And in an election year when multil-billionaires are declaring that corporations and the very rich need tax breaks and favorable legislation if this economy is going to thrive, the ending of “Too Big to Fail” can be particularly disturbing. After Congress bails out nine banks with an infusion of capital, Federal Reserve chairmen Ben Bernanke (Paul Giamatti) says to Henry Paulson (William Hurt), “I hope they use the money the way we’re asking.”
And, of course, they didn’t. Why would they? When the federal government gave the Boeing Corporation a large bailout to keep the company from cutting jobs, Boeing accepted the money and cut the jobs anyway. “Too Big to Fail” reminds us that after the 2008 financial bailout, banks made fewer loans, markets tumbled, and unemployment skyrocketed. They kept the money. That’s the problem with capitalism and trickle-down economics. It only works if the people with the money pass it along somehow.
There’s a clue in this film as to why that will never happen, and it has to do with the curious number of penis references in the vernacular of high-finance, big-business types. One blusters, “Tell Tim Geithner to f---ing blow me. I’m trying to save my business.” Another says, “Morgan Stanley just made a deal with Mitsubishi? So we’re the only bank with our dicks hangin’ out in the wind?”
So much testosterone. So many dicks.
“Too Big to Fail” received a whopping 11 Emmy nominations—including Outstanding Miniseries or Made for Television Movie, Outstanding Lead Actor (William Hurt), and Outstanding Writing for a Minieseries, Movie or a Dramatic Special (Peter Gould). But Gould, who has written nine episodes of the hit series “Breaking Bad,” offers a curious combination of “West Wing”-style walk-and-talk that can go right over the heads of laypeople, and slow-down “nut-graph” summaries that feel less natural coming out of the characters’ mouths because the lines seem aimed directly at the audience. That was one thing that struck me as I watched this show. The other was staging.
This isn’t an action film. I know that. But a little variety, somehow, in the pacing and staging would have helped tremendously. There are only so many times that an actor can look distressed while sitting at a table or wiping his brow. And unlike so many films about high-level crisis management, we don’t get a single scene involving anyone’s personal lives. Logically speaking, no one had a personal life during the crisis. I get that. But it doesn’t make for as compelling a film if we don’t get to know the characters because the crisis itself looms as the main content. In fact, the closest thing we get to personality revelation comes when Hank Paulson, George W. Bush’s Secretary of the Treasury, drops on bended knee in front of democratic leader Nancy Pelosi. And I don’t believe that for one minute.
The acting in “Too Big to Fail” is solid enough, with Hurt leading the way. It’s just that some of the scenes themselves are either repetitively dull, somehow confusing, or obviously dumbed down for the average person.
“Too Big to Fail” tells the behind-the-scenes saga of negotiations to save Lehman Brothers and AIG after the first signs of collapse showed themselves in March 2008, and the narrative continues through the Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac failures and into mid-October 2008, when Congress approved a bailout. That’s the time frame, and I’ll warn you right now: If you read about this in the newspapers when it was happening, there are no new revelations to speak of in this screen adaptation of Andrew Ross Sorkin’s bestselling book. So if you didn’t care enough to read about it, the movie version won’t be any more appealing—unless, of course, you’re fascinated by such crisis management strategies as forced mergers, “cash for trash” (buying toxic assets), or capital injection.
“We give you money, you lend it out.”
On paper, it makes sense. But big business is still big business, and you get the feeling watching this film that the financial crisis of 2008 wasn’t solved . . . it was just averted, and that the causes of the crisis (testosterone, greed, high-risk business practices) unfortunately persist.
Pardon me if I don’t wave my Capitalism pennant and cheer, “Ya-aaay TEAM! But I get the feeling that I won’t be alone in my reaction.
The majority of scenes in “Too Big to Fail” are deliberately shot in back rooms, hallways, darkened conference rooms, and other low-lit venues. It’s to imply, of course, a certain shadiness. The AVC/MPEG-4 transfer to a 25GB disc is clean and free of visible artifacts. There’s a decent amount of detail, even in dim lighting, and in the outdoor scenes you can really see the quality of the transfer. “Too Big to Fail” is presented in 1.78:1 widescreen, “enhanced” for 16x9 monitors.
The audio is less impressive, because less is asked of it. “Too Big to Fail” is a dialogue-driven film with some background music and no special effects. But the mix is solid enough to handle the overlapping dialogue that frequently occurs, and the white-noise ambient office sounds that occupy the background. The featured audio is an English DTS-HD MA 5.1, with French DTS 5.1 and Spanish DTS 2.0 also available. Subtitles are in English SDH, French, and Spanish.
This set includes a DVD and Digital Copy of the film. As for traditional bonus features, there are but three: “Opening the Vault on the Financial Crisis” (19 min.), which combines interviews with cast and crew with Sorkin and other journalists and economists. It’s pretty basic, mostly offering a reaffirmation of the points obviously made in the film. A second “making of” feature is really a pre-release promo of under two minutes. And the third bonus feature? It’s a timeline of the financial crisis during the year in question that actually is useful if at any point you’re wondering where things are at in the film.
“Too Big to Fail” is no “Wall Street,” which focused more on personalities to explain how and why Wall Street is the way it is. The financial crisis, not people, takes the spotlight in this film by Curtis Hanson—a juggernaut so potentially destructive that it reduces everyone to bit players.