If the economy hadn't hung in the balance, the economic meltdown of 2008 would make for a great tragic play.
Still, the epic story of hubris and greed makes for a gripping, if overly taut HBO film, "Too Big to Fail," airing Monday, May 23. Based on Andrew Ross Sorkin's best-seller and directed by Curtis Hanson ("L.A. Confidential"), the film goes behind closed doors to reveal how then-Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson (William Hurt) and Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke (Paul Giamatti) strong-armed CEOs of major banks into staving off a full-out crash.
"While this was happening I sort of had a sense of what was going on, and now that I do have a sense I am retroactively scared," says Cynthia Nixon, who plays Michele Davis, assistant secretary of the treasury for public affairs. "It's really galling. On a certain level, Hank Paulson and Bernanke were heroes and saved us from what could have been truly cataclysmic."
The federal bailout was fraught with doubt, over which loomed the specter of economic ruin not seen since the Great Depression. The film focuses on the difficult machinations to reach that point. It's a complicated, dry and often abstract subject, yet one that affects everyone.
"I've been thinking about, reading about the issue for as long as it's been going on," Hurt say of the crisis. "My friends and I talk about it. I studied economics in college, so it's not that alien to me as a person."
While the other actors were interviewed separately for this article, Hurt, at a press conference last winter, says, "One of the things we did was develop a glossary of terms, a list of characters' personae and a history of events."
Like the exceptionally reported book upon which this is based, the film does a solid job of explaining what happened. There is, of course, plenty of blame to go around.
"People act like we are crack dealers," James Woods as Lehman Brothers Chairman and CEO Richard Fuld says in the film. "Nobody put a gun to anybody's head and said, 'Hey, nimrod, buy a house you can't afford. And while you're at it, put a line of credit on that baby and buy yourself a boat."
Many books, documentaries and TV shows have examined what happened, but this film comes at it from montages of news clips stitched into the narratives of the people behind the major decisions. When financial terminology is flying, it can be an impenetrable subject.
Jim Wilkinson (Topher Grace), chief of staff at the Department of the Treasury, cuts to the essence of the crisis when he says, "Wall Street started bundling home loans together into mortgage-backed securities and selling slices of those bundles to investors. And they were making big money, so they started pushing the lenders saying, 'Come on, we need more.' "
As excellent as the actors are, a movie about meetings and decisions has limits. This feels like a play turned into a film rather than a film adapted from a book. It could be a lot more visual, and it would have been had we had a glimpse into the lavish lifestyles of the Wall Street bosses.
Then there's Warren Buffett, the world's richest man, who is shown at a fast food restaurant with his great-grandchildren. Many of the principals -- Hurt, Nixon and Grace -- talked with the people they portray, but Ed Asner didn't meet with Buffett.
"I'm not a moneyman," Asner says. "It would be such a mitzvah to have Warren Buffett take every penny I earn and say, 'Let him handle it.' "
Though not every actor is a doppelganger of his real counterpart, care was taken to create striking resemblances. Giamatti's shaved head, white beard and the measured way he speaks are so very much like Bernanke. As for the blondish wig he wore to portray Buffett, Asner, deadpan, says, "I have so much hair it was a minor adjustment."
Some of the main players, such as Wilkinson, are not well-known.
"He has a very low profile for someone in PR, which I respected him for," Grace says.
While Asner and Nixon let their feelings be known on some issues, respectively politics and public schools, Grace is purposefully mum about his opinions.
"I want to be really careful that I don't say anything when I am doing interviews that bring my politics or point of view," he says. "I am just careful that no one should care what actors think -- about anything. Anything to do with money, you should not care what actors think."
The actors interviewed agreed that this film puts recent history into perspective.
"It gives a real sense of what might have happened if we had gone off the precipice," Nixon says, "if we hadn't been able to stop the downward spiral."
"Had there been a defeat, it would have been a defeat for everybody but it was only a victory for the very top," Nixon says.
Since this crisis broke, 10 banks now hold 77 percent of all U.S. assets. They have been declared too big to fail.
'Too Big to Fail' offers balanced look at 2008 economic crisis
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