Wednesday, February 5, 2014

Too Big to Fail (2011) [TV-UR] ****

A film review by David Wiegand, S.F. Chronicle, May 19, 2011.

Too Big to Fail, HBO's adaptation of Andrew Ross Sorkin's book airing Monday, has a lot going for it, including one great performance after another from an A-list cast, crisp direction by Curtis Hanson and the sweeping theme of pulling the nation's economy back from total collapse.

There's only one problem: If you're the kind of person who balances his checkbook by collecting ATM receipts, most of it will be hard to understand. The real Henry Paulson, Timothy Geithner and Ben Bernanke may know this stuff like the backs of their hands. But for just plain folks, it's pretty tough sledding.

With a screenplay by Peter Gould, Too Big to Fail looks at what happened only a couple of years ago when huge Wall Street institutions such as Lehman Bros., Morgan Stanley, AIG and Goldman Sachs found themselves fighting for their lives. In short, if these institutions were allowed to collapse, it would not only imperil the nation's economy but have equally disastrous global consequences.

The film focuses on then-Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson (William Hurt in a towering performance), who had pushed for deregulation when he headed Goldman but once he was keeper of the nation's coffers found himself without the necessary legal resources to stanch the financial bloodshed.

At first, Paulson had only Lehman to worry about, as does Lehman's two-fisted CEO, Dick Fuld (James Woods). But as other institutions begin to wobble, the idea of multiple bailouts became not only politically dangerous but fiscally irresponsible. In the end, after the passage of needed legislation by Congress, the feds were able to make lifesaving cash transfusions to the troubled companies by becoming nonvoting stockholders.

That's the World Economy Bailout for Dummies shorthand version of the film, which, to its credit, goes out of its way to pause here and there during its churning pace to explain basic economic principles to its audience.

Despite the complexity of the subject, it's impossible not to get the gist of what went on in 2008, thanks to the focus on the players and the actors who do the playing. What a cast: Tony Shalhoub (Morgan Stanley CEO John Mack), Edward Asner (Warren Buffett), Bill Pullman (JPMorgan Chase CEO Jamie Dimon), Paul Giamatti (Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke), Billy Crudup (New York Federal Reserve Bank President Tim Geithner), Evan Handler (Goldman Sachs CEO Lloyd Blankfein) and Matthew Modine (Merrill Lynch CEO John Thain).

Director Curtis Hanson paces the whole thing like a thriller, as if the fate of the entire world were at stake. By the end, even if we don't entirely understand the complexity of the threat, we're convinced that's exactly how serious the crisis was.

The supporting cast includes James Heard, Erin Dilly, Amy Carlson, Topher Grace, Ayad Akhtar, Cynthia Nixon, Kathy Baker and Erin Burnett.

Labels: drama, finance, thriller

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