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History Slay: Why HBO's "Too Big to Fail" Is Too Dull to Watch

If history squeezes uncomfortably into books, it squawks mightily at being crammed into your TV set. The past -- vast, intricate, murky as a river -- defies the pat narratives and one-dimensional characters that commonly populate the box.

Which is why it's no surprise that last night's HBO adaptation of NYT reporter Andrew Ross Sorkin's account of the 2008 financial crisis, Too Big to Fail, was a disappointment. Especially when compared with some of the great cinematic political thrillers -- All the President's Men, the 1976 adaptation of Carl Bernstein's and Bob Woodward's Watergate classic, comes to mind. Lesser known today, but perhaps even greater, is director Gilles Pontecorvo's 1966 The Battle for Algiers, about the French-Algerian war. In a related genre, there are many superb flicks about business, including Glengarry Glen Ross and, depending on your taste for allegory, The Godfather.

By contrast, as a movie TBTF is a dud. The problem lies partly with Sorkin's 2010 book. Diligently reported, it seeks to put readers "inside the room" as then-Treasury Secretary Henry 'Hank' Paulson and the grand viziers of Wall Street alternately courted and struggled to contain financial Armageddon.

As journalism, this approach is useful in establishing a chronology of events -- ah, so that's when former Lehman Brothers CEO Dick Fuld finally realized the jig was up. And Sorkin's access to many of the key actors in the drama yields plenty of interesting detail (Wow, who knew that former SEC Chairman Chris Cox was quite so feckless?) But the technique actually hinders answering arguably more critical questions, such as why Lehman was overleveraged to begin with or how Paulson's views on government regulation may have informed his actions at Treasury.

In other words, a fly on the wall may see everything and understand nothing.

Paulson: "High Noon" or high buffoon?
The compression of detail required in film magnifies this problem. As a result, "the true story behind the 2008 economic crisis," as HBO bills the movie, offers a deceptively narrow and self-serving perspective on the meltdown. Paulson, who as one of the two main protagonists in the story (Fuld is the other) comes off as believably nuanced in Sorkin's book, is flattened in the movie into a naive caricature -- the tormented hero facing down his foes. And Paulson's not exactly Gary Cooper.

It doesn't help the film's dramatic tension that it lacks a bad guy, let alone one as richly villainous as Richard Nixon. The bankers portrayed in the story, including Goldman Sachs (GS) CEO Lloyd Blankfein, JPMorgan Chase (JPM) chief Jamie Dimon and Morgan Stanley (MS) head John Mack, come off more like the bitchy housewives of Manhattan than the "malefactors of great wealth" of popular imagination. Snooki is scarier. And at least Gordon Gekko wagged his lizardy tail in expounding on the virtues of greed.

The film also makes the cardinal sin of having characters explain the financial crisis as if reciting from a CliffsNotes booklet on banking products. Here's Paulson and his high-powered lieutenants at Treasury earnestly discussing what a subprime mortgage is. (Wait, you mean it's for folks with poor credit?) There's GE boss Jeffrey Immelt sucking his thumb over the possibility that the crisis could actually spread to Main Street. You don't say.

Such dumbing-down isn't only implausible; it denies the characters the intent -- and thus the agency -- to knowingly make the decisions that shaped the collapse.

Those who forget history....
The film does have its uses. For one, it's a helpful reminder of the inadequacies of TARP and the other public-policy remedies prescribed to prevent future financial catastrophe. As Sorkin tells Henry Blodget in discussing the movie (see video at bottom for full interview):

To me, the saddest part about this whole project two-and-half years on is that the ethos hasn't changed on the Street. Having said that, I do think Wall Street is getting a little more boring -- in a good way. There are clawbacks now. People are making less money than they used to make. There is less risk in the system today than there used to be. The question is how long our memory is going to last. That's what Too Big to Fail is really about.
Fair point. In its prime objective the Street remains essentially unchanged. Except now it's bigger, as the Paulson and Tim Geithner characters readily conceded in scheming back in 2008 to merge weak banks with stronger ones. That raises the question of how much less risky and interconnected the system actually is, especially given the industry's continuing push-back against financial reform.

Fade to black? Let's hope not.


Images from Wikimedia Commons
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