Reality TV: Global Economic Collapse Edition

One of the many things that mystified me about the 2008 near-death experience of the global financial system was how anyone thought that chopping up mortgages made to high-risk borrowers and then repackaging them into securities to be sold to buyers around the world would make the risk disappear. I had similar questions when I found out that Too Big to Fail, journalist Andrew Ross Sorkin’s book about the financial crisis, had been made into a film by HBO. The book, after all, is 555 pages long (my husband joked that it was “too big to finish”), while the movie clocks in at just over 1½ hours. How on earth, I wondered, would the filmmakers manage to work in the book’s innumerable characters, its voluminous background material, its virtually real-time accounts of desperate, eleventh-hour deal-making? Wouldn’t the book get chopped up beyond recognition, like one of those infamous subprime mortgages?

The simple answer: They didn’t. And it doesn’t. But while some of the detail and much of the scope of Sorkin’s book are inevitably lost, the film version of Too Big to Fail easily stands on its own, with a stellar cast, taut pacing, and crisp dialogue. The action begins with faltering investment bank Bear Stearns having already been sold at a rock-bottom price to JP Morgan Chase with a government backstop on any losses, then accelerates as panic in the markets threatens to topple every other major investment bank in turn, along with mortgage guarantors Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac and giant insurer AIG. The Wall Street types scramble to find the merger or outside investor that will save their firms, while the regulators in New York and Washington have to choose between engaging in politically unpopular bailouts and watching the U.S. and world economies shudder to a standstill.

You might think a film about government bureaucrats, complex financial instruments, and high-stakes deals conducted by roomfuls of lawyers and bankers would be deadly dull, but the pace of the film is so relentless that — even though the events depicted took place just a few years ago — you may find yourself wondering what just happened (sort of like when you review your investment account statements). To provide quick, credible exposition and transitions, director Curtis Hanson (L.A. Confidential) has inserted actual footage from CNBC, with the real Maria Bartiromo, Erin Burnett, and David Faber functioning as a sort of talking-head Greek chorus, filling us in on the action and passing judgment on the main characters.

Chief among these characters, in the film, are then-Treasury Secretary Hank Paulson, played by William Hurt, and then-President of the New York Federal Reserve Timothy Geithner, played by Billy Crudup sporting copious amounts of hair gel. Presumably in the interest of time, Hanson and screenwriter Peter Gould have dispensed with the characters’ back stories, juicy as some of them are (according to Sorkin, Paulson’s mother wept when she learned he was taking a job in the Bush administration). But these omissions can make it difficult to distinguish among the endless parade of characters appearing onscreen. Tony Shalhoub manages to make an impression as Morgan Stanley CEO John Mack, alternating between courtly Southern gentleman and trash-talking trader. But some very fine actors end up in what amount to cameo roles: John Heard as the COO of Lehman Brothers has barely any screen time; Bill Pullman as Jamie Dimon, CEO of JP Morgan Chase, gets to look and sound smug in only a few brief scenes; and Kathy Baker’s talents are wasted in the underwritten role of Paulson’s wife Wendy.

The filmmakers have also chosen to anoint a hero for this story. Sorkin’s book contains enough detail and nuance that even an ostensible villain like Dick Fuld, CEO of failed investment bank Lehman Brothers, earns a measure of the reader’s sympathy. And despite Paulson’s earnest attempts to salvage the American economy, the book also makes clear the man’s failings. The film, on the other hand, although not overtly political, ends up as something of a hagiography of Paulson, while portraying Fuld (played by James Woods) as an irredeemable jerk.

But the film succeeds because it tells a compelling, if unsettling story; some viewers might even forget they already know the ending. You’d learn more from reading the book, but even financially savvy viewers will probably pick up quite a bit from the film that they never knew — yet the movie doesn’t have the earnest or heavy-handed air of a film that’s trying to teach the viewer something.

Meanwhile, now that I’ve knocked off Too Big to Fail, perhaps I’ll finally get around to finishing War and Peace. I hear there’s a movie version of that, too.

Too Big to Fail. William Hurt, Billy Crudup, James Woods, Edward Asner, Tony Shalhoub, Cynthia Nixon, Paul Giamatti, and countless others star in a film directed by Curtis Hanson, written by Peter Gould, and based on the book by Andrew Ross Sorkin.

This is an HBO movie, produced for television, so it is not MPAA-rated. There is no sex or violence but a good deal of strong profanity. Running time: about 99 minutes.

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