HBO's "Too Big to Fail" tough going, good reminder

"Too Big to Fail" aired last night on HBO and those who got through it deserve a medal for perseverance and kudos for caring enough about the subject.

While it's hard to create a lot of interest in a movie that is constructed like a thriller when one knows how it all ends, the big name actors you're watching give you most of the reasons to stay with the film. It is one and three-quarter hours long and while you'd think that is brief to explain the magnitude of the subject, it seems longer once you begin viewing.

There are no "West Wing" scenes of then-President George W. Bush hashing through the minutiae of saving the U.S. from a depression that would have taken down other countries' fortunes like dominoes. He and his staff are nowhere to be found and the White House is only mentioned when the country's financial brain trust need to update the President.

The action takes place in a span of one month during the heart of the 2008 presidential race. Yet, the closest we get to either Barack Obama or John McCain, is one clip of the Republican nominee from news footage and the sight of the back of his head in a scene with William Hurt, who plays U.S. Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson.

Paulson is the protagonist in the piece, ably played by Hurt who is portrayed in tender moments with his wife, a role filled by the wonderful Kathy Baker. We learn that Paulson, in addition to a nature lover is a Christian Scientist. When he looks like he is ready to keel over from the enormity of the task, he flushes sleeping pills down the toilet, given to him by his chief of staff despite being sleep deprived. It is a bit unnerving.

Paulson's nearest and dearest on the professional side are Ben Bernanke Chairman of the Federal Reserve, portrayed by Paul Giamatti, with whom he has a weekly breakfast meeting and current U.S. Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner, who was second in command to Bernanke at that time. The scenes of the breakfasts might put you to sleep but please resist the urge. Much is exchanged that pushes the plot ahead in the muted conversations between the two.

Geithner's character is written to make him the guy who has to corral the investment and banking execs, and break their spirits on orders from Paulson. Geithner is played by Billy Crudup as someone who sounded the alarm a bit earlier than Paulson or his staff, and has the business savvy to keep the solution moving in the right direction. For reaction from the real Geithner at a screening of the film, read "Geithner predicts it will happen again."

Topher Grace is given the task of playing Paulson's chief of staff and it is his fellow Assistant Secretaries around Paulson that are used by the writer, Peter Gould of "Breaking Bad" fame and director Curtis Hanson who helmed "L.A. Confidential", to give us the background facts we might have forgotten, or never knew in the first place. Along with Grace are Cynthia Nixon as Treasury's media guru with the other Assistant Secretaries played by Joey Slotnick and Ayad Akhtar.

The executives from the major investment banking houses and big banks who either lose their companies, have to sell or end up merging are all what you'd expect. Haughty, wealthy, late middle age and white, they vacillate between stabbing each other in the back in a game of survival, or buckling under once and for all when Paulson tells them the fate of the world's financial system rests on their shoulders.

There may better explanations for why it all came to this but there are none that would have kept "Too Big to Fail" in the realm of a mainstream entertainment vehicle. The slant of the filmmakers is one that puts less blame on the shoulders of spend-happy consumers than on the gambling nature of the investments that failed as the housing market bubble burst.

Only Lehman Brothers was considered small enough to fail and the fall of that investment house is portrayed as having more to do with the inability of its CEO, Richard Fuld, to believe the crisis wouldn't pass before it devoured his company. The ever edgy James Woods takes that role and when Fuld's character is sacrificed to keep Merrill Lynch from going under, you feel a bit of sympathy for him only due to Woods' acting range.

The film has two "ah-ha" moments and they involve admissions of fault. In one scene Paulson says about him and his agency, "We've been late on everything." The other is when he ruefully tells his staff that the reason the situation was allowed to get out of hand is more than a result of deregulation and lack of oversight. "They were making too much money," says Paulson about the bankers' lack of motivation to stop betting on the real estate market as if it would never fail.

The AIG collapse is dutifully handled as the final straw that resulted in TARP being passed and the U.S. government bailing out banks, with cash infusions in exchange for non-voting shares in their companies. A bit of dialogue addresses the dreaded fear of nationalization of the banks, but when push comes to shove, Paulson had to use the what he called the bazooka in his pocket, for what no one liked to call a bailout.

It's not an uplifting hour and three-quarters nor is it very enlightening. It gives us no more than we were told in news accounts and interviews after the fact. Yet, if you want to put yourself in the board rooms of the titans of the industry that almost took us all down, this flick is for you. HBO is re-running the program throughout the week and it is available on HBO On-Demand.

Image credit: Wikimedia Commons, Henry Paulson U.S. Treasury Secretary 2006