TOO BIG TO FAIL – Reviews of a Bestselling Book & the HBO Film

Too Big to Fail – the HBO Film

 HBO Films    |    Director: Curtis Hanson   |    Premiered May 23 on HBO

 Although most people know how HBO’s docudrama Too Big to Fail will end – the world is made safe for investment bankers again – director Curtis Hanson does a marvellous job keeping the audience on the edge of its seat throughout nearly 100 minutes. The film, which premiered on May 23 on HBO, tells the breathtaking – but complex – story of September 2008, when capitalism almost went down the tubes. It is a painful remin­der of just how close to the abyss our economy came, in case anyone has forgotten.

William Hurt plays US Treasury secretary Hank Paulson in 'Too Big to Fail'

It cannot have been easy for Hanson, who won an Oscar for the film LA Confidential, or the screenwriter, Peter Gould, to streamline New York Times reporter Andrew Ross Sorkin’s action-packed, detail­ed 2009 bestseller.

 So, anticipating which of the book’s anecdotes will feature adds to the suspense. Will Treasury secretary Hank Paulson, portrayed flaw­lessly by William Hurt, throw up in his office sink and, if so, how often? Will Tim Geithner, president of the Federal Reserve Bank of New York – played a little boyishly by Billy Crudup – go for that early morning run, with the Statue of Liberty as a backdrop, as the world is falling apart? Will John Mack, chief executive of Morgan Stanley, rendered brilliant­ly by Tony Shalhoub, tell Matthew Modine’s John Thain, head of Merrill Lynch, where to stick it when he suggests the assembled ban­kers just let Lehman Brothers fail?

 Such questions and many others – including how this mess happened in the first place – are answered in a fast-paced, if unsubtle way. That the HBO team keeps the drama moving along briskly, especially when so many scenes feature nattily dressed white men sitting in ornate conference rooms and fearing the end of their world, is testament to Hollywood’s power of alchemy.

As long as you do not ex­pect Bourne-style car chases through narrow Parisian streets, you will not be disappointed. Instead, there is a lot of snapping shut of cell phones – does anyone still have clamshell devices? – often without saying goodbye.

There are some scene-stealers among the star-studded cast. Although it is not nearly close to accurate, Evan Handler’s portrayal of Lloyd Blankfein, chief executive of Goldman Sachs, (looking more like Gary Cohn, Blankfein’s right-hand man, than the CEO) is a riot. And Laila Robins is priceless as Christine Lagarde, the French finance minister and top contender to lead the International Monetary Fund, when she upbraids Paulson for having the audacity to let Lehman fail and not telling her about it.

Indeed, what stands out in Too Big to Fail is the quality of the acting. Other notable performances incl­ude James Woods as Richard Fuld, CEO of Lehman, Paul Giamatti as Fed chairman Ben Bernanke, and Topher Grace as Paulson’s aide Jim Wilkerson.

This is not a women’s world, so very few make it to the screen. Along with Lagarde, there is Michele Davis, Paulson’s trusted PR adviser, and Erin Callan, the hapless chief financial officer at Lehman.

Cynthia Nixon’s portrayal of Davis is too harsh but Amy Carlson’s depiction of Callan had me wondering if she had in fact played herself. Clearly, part of the fun of the film – for me anyway – was to judge how closely the actors measured up to their real-life counterparts.

In fact, the one cameo ap­pearance belongs to Sorkin himself, who asks Paulson a question at a White House press briefing scene. Sorkin was not at the real press conference – he covers Wall Street from New York, not Washington – but it is a sign of the film’s skill in carving out a highly entertaining slug of his monumental book that the scene feels entirely appropriate.

Too Big to Fail: The Inside Story of How Wall Street and Washington Fought to Save the Financial System-and Themselves

Too Big to Fail, which debuted at No. 4 on the Times’ best-seller list, is a nearly minute-by-minute account of the financial crisis as observed through the eyes of the clashing Wall Street CEOs who drove their investment banks into the abyss and the government regulators who watched powerless from the sidelines. The book has become a kind of media sensation.

Too Big to Fail: Inside the Battle to Save Wall Street

Andrew Ross Sorkin delivers the first true behind-the-scenes, moment-by-moment account of how the greatest financial crisis since the Great Depression developed into a global tsunami. From inside the corner office at Lehman Brothers to secret meetings in South Korea, and the corridors of Washington, Too Big to Fail is the definitive story of the most powerful men and women in finance and politics grappling with success and failure, ego and greed, and, ultimately, the fate of the world’s economy.

We’ve got to get some foam down on the runway!” a sleepless Timothy Geithner, the then-president of the Federal Reserve of New York, would tell Henry M. Paulson, the Treasury secretary, about the catastrophic crash the world’s financial system would experience.

 Through unprecedented access to the players involved, Too Big to Fail re-creates all the drama and turmoil, revealing never disclosed details and elucidating how decisions made on Wall Street over the past decade sowed the seeds of the debacle. This true story is not just a look at banks that were “too big to fail,” it is a real-life thriller with a cast of bold-faced names who themselves thought they were too big to fail.

 At the intersection of high finance and news, the New York Times’ past and its future, and with a new best-selling book about the Wall Street crisis, 32-year-old Andrew Ross Sorkin has thrived by understanding the psyches of big players under attack. Which is a talent that has suddenly come in very handy.


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