Tuned In: 'Too Big to Fail' explores the 2008 financial crisis

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HBO's "Too Big to Fail," based on the book of the same title by New York Times reporter Andrew Ross Sorkin, is one of those behind-the-scenes, process films that depicts some moments so outlandish they'd come off as hyperbole if not for the fact that they're based on actual events.

Like the network's 2008 telefilm "Recount," which told the inside story of the 2000 presidential election, "Too Big to Fail" (9 p.m. Monday) takes viewers behind closed doors during the September 2008 financial crisis for myriad scenes of Evil League of Evil members (AKA America's banking executives) getting dictated to by U.S. Treasury secretary Henry Paulson (William Hurt) in ornate board rooms.

Given the topic, "Too Big to Fail" might seem like a movie made only for policy wonks but even if you don't understand the finer points of monetary policy, it's still entertaining because it features that great equalizer in American popular culture: Wealthy, well-heeled people behave like jerks, allowing the less wealthy a certain superior satisfaction.

Of course, in this crisis, there was plenty of blame to go around, from Wall Street fat cats to Main Street homeowners who bought homes they could not actually afford.

Written by Peter Gould ("Breaking Bad") and directed by Curtis Hanson ("Wonder Boys"), "Too Big to Fail" features cameos by political figures made famous by cable news -- Nancy Pelosi (Linda Glick), Barney Frank (Dan Hedaya), the back of John McCain's head -- but spends more time with the likes of Federal Reserve Bank of New York president Timothy Geithner (Billy Crudup) and chairman of the Federal Reserve Ben Bernanke (Paul Giamatti). Wealthy business magnate Warren Buffet (Ed Asner) also appears. (Although the TARP -- the Troubled Asset Relief Program -- occurred during the George W. Bush administration, President Bush is only seen briefly in news footage.)

If not for the seriousness of the situation -- the potential for a new Great Depression -- "Too Big to Fail" could play as a black comedy. A top Chinese official lectures Paulson at the Beijing Olympics ("The amount of debt your country carries is a terrible vulnerability"), Treasury PR flack Michele Davis (Cynthia Nixon, "Sex and the City") scolds anyone who refers to "a very large purchase assistance package" as a bailout (even though it is) and in the most absurd moment, Bernanke questions Paulson's request to loosen requirements.

"You want me to allow them to raise their leverage so they can buy a bank that's about to fail because it's over-leveraged?" he asks incredulously.

At a relatively brief 98-minutes, the film moves at a fast clip with urgent background music quickening the pace. It takes some time but the film eventually settles on Paulson as its central subject, even going home to show a few interactions with his wife (Kathy Baker, "Picket Fences"). Even these scenes fail to give much of a sense of who this guy is and how he came to inherit this mess (the opening credits include images of both President Reagan and President Clinton endorsing banking deregulation, allowing the film to cast equal opportunity blame on Republicans and Democrats). But biography is not the point.

"Too Big to Fail" is more interested in showing the inter-connectedness of the American (and world) banking systems and how bank assets remain largely concentrated today (10 banks hold 77 percent of all U.S. bank assets).

At a January HBO press conference in Pasadena, Calif., Mr. Gould, the screenwriter, compared "Too Big to Fail" to a disaster film, just one that's set during a financial crisis rather than when an asteroid is hurtling toward the Earth.

"Economic policy may not be sexy but the fact that all of us have credit cards and bank accounts means that pretty much all of us have a stake in what was going on," he said.

Mr. Hanson said the film falls squarely in the wheelhouse of the kinds of movies he makes.

"Most of the pictures I've done have been about people in difficult circumstances trying to figure out their way out," he said, "how to be the better version of themselves, if you will."

Mr. Sorkin, who served as a consultant on the film, said one of the goals of the project was to remind the public of what happened -- and how it could happen again.

"[It was] an opportunity to try to take the public inside the room so they could see what happened, so they could actually see what the decisions were that were made and what the opportunities were and the choices were that they actually had," he said. "In hindsight, everything looks black and white. ... But when you're actually there, the choices were different. ... You get to see what we were up against and how this was perhaps the most catastrophic thing that had happened in our economy since the Great Depression and that we were really on the edge."

Rob Owen writes this Sunday TV column for Scripps Howard News Service. Contact him at: rowen@post-gazette.com or 412-263-2582. Read the Tuned In Journal blog at post-gazette.com/tv. Follow RobOwenTV on Twitter or Facebook. First Published May 22, 2011 4:00 AM


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