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Non-Review Review: Too Big To Fail

I’ll admit to being quite impressed with the work HBO have done of late. I’m not so much talking about their production of some of the finest drama on television, but instead talking about the fantastic job they’ve done in bringing original drama to life inside the format of television movies. There was a time that television movies were mocked and frowned upon, something of a guilty pleasure rather than an artform to take seriously, but HBO has done a rather sterling job of late, producing films like The Special Relationship, which I thought might have supported even a small-scale theatrical run. Too Big To Fail is just as good, if not slightly better – focusing on the United States financial collapse of 2008, it brings together an all-star cast under a fantastic director to offer a movie that is far more interesting and compelling than any drama based on number crunching really ought to be.

Bringing the Hurt...

Curtis Hanson is a director best known for the fantastic work he did on L.A. Confidential, and he’s quite a coup for HBO here. He handles the production with style and energy, making it feel like a large-scale movie rather than a bunch of talking heads bouncing what sounds like technical jargon off one another. Part of the reason I think Too Big To Fail works so well is because there’s so much motion. People are moving, walking, jogging, playing racket ball. Warren Buffet is interrupted during quality family time, the CEO of Lehmann Brothers gets bad news while stepping off his helicopter. There’s no sense that the production is confined, in terms of scale or budget, no indication that those involved are cutting corners in anyway.

The casting helps, quite a lot. While there aren’t necessarily any matinée names (save, perhaps, William Hurt), Hanson has populated his cast with a variety of respected and skilled (and recognisable) character actors. I would pay to see a theatrical release with a cast that included Billy Crudup, Bill Pullman, Tony Shalhoub, James Woods and Paul Giamatti, among others. Even smaller actors like Topher Grace and Cynthia Nixon seem relatively well-cast in fair minor yet important roles. In short, Hanson has built a machine that works – the engine being used to tell the story is manufactured from top-grade parts, of the very highest quality.

What a Dick...

And the story is certainly a fascinating one. The story about the financial collapse of the United States banking sector is a hugely important one, but I doubt it was easy to translate to the screen – if only because the financial sector is generally couched in such ambiguous and nebulous terms. The movie wisely avoids – with the exception of one nice little scene – dwelling too much on the individual technical mechanics of the various factors that contributed to the bursting of the bubble (in most cases pointing, fairly enough, to a complete lack of regulation). Instead, it looks at the very human aspects of it all – those facets of any situation that make great drama – and translates them to screen.

“This is a confidence game,” Henry Paulson, Treasury Secretary, informs us. Dick Fuld, watching his share price fall, insists, “It’s all about perception.” In fact, Woods’ Fuld is fascinating to watch, one of the actor’s better creations of late, a man desperately hiding his head in the sand as the figures come in, assuring colleagues, “The storm always passes.” Of Fuld, a character remarks, “He’s not thinking, he’s delusional.” It’s a rather stunning, and effective, portrayal of the type of denial and arrogance that really kicked the situation into overdrive, as Fuld refuses to accept the fact he might have to sell for “low single figures”, when the stock price was 66 a few months back. When Korean investors refuse to look at the company’s property portfolio, remarking they’ve already looked at the real estate data, Fuld is arrogant enough to sour the whole deal by demanding, “You must have looked at them the wrong way.”

Hard to swallow...

This type of thinking occurs time and time again throughout the film, as the banks refuse to accept that they need any sort of help, worried about losing face or autonomy. When the Treasury comes up with a workable investment scheme (T.A.R.P.), the banks are initially hesitant to sign on because of potential government interference. “Are you asking me about your bonus?” Paulson asks, in a state of disbelief, illustrating just how disconnected the executives are from the dire situation.

The movie is actually relatively sympathetic to Paulson. It paints him as “the guy behind the elephant with the shovel”, who is trying to do his best in a situation spiraling rapidly out of control. One staffer eventually asks, “What do I say when they ask me why this wasn’t regulated?” Paulson responds with the honest answer that nobodywanted it to be regulated. The movie cleverly plays politics, but it doesn’t take sides. I mean, McCain’s intervention in the T.A.R.P. negotiations was an unmitigated disaster, and the movie calls him on it, but it also portrays the Democrats as being just as petty about the whole deal. In short, everybody involved with the whole situation comes out looking tarnished – there’s no hint of awkward partisanship behind the movie.

Everything is on the table...

If there is a problem with the film, it’s that it basically feels like it’s the middle instalment in a trilogy. It picks up the action after the damage has been done, with expository news footage telling us how we got to where we are today, with no financial regulation to speak of. It feels like we’re jumping on in the middle of a story that might be juicy in its own right, as the banks make the decisions – enabled by politicians elected by voters – that lead to this crisis. That might make for an interesting movie to watch.

The movie also ends with a rather bitterly ironic question, as one official wonders whether the banks will use the money invested to free up the flow of credit. We know that they don’t, if only from our experiences, but the movie cuts off there with a variety of interesting facts. I can’t help but feel that there’s an interesting story to be told on thatside of this fiasco as well, with those involved trying to force the banks to stop giving golden parachutes while refusing to lend, and the politicians involved suffering at the polls for their involvement. As such, the film feels a little incomplete, like the bridge between two equally compelling stories. Then again, it is a true story – and one could argue that life is quite like that.

Breaking the banks...

Too Big To Fail is a well-made little film, handled with great skill by all involved. It’s conclusive proof that you don’t have to look to the cinema to find an engaging and engrossing little movie

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