HBO’s Too Big to Fail: Searching for Heroes in All the Wrong Places
The most obvious challenge in adapting the story of the 2008 financial crisis to the screen is that there are plenty of Wall Street villains for the audience to jeer at, but no heroes to be found. The creators of HBO’s Too Big to Fail (based on the book by Andrew Ross Sorkin) obviously ran head-first into this problem. In their desperate search for a sympathetic protagonist, they appear to have settled for Treasury Secretary Hank Paulson, portrayed in the film by Academy Award winner William Hurt.
It’s a testament to Hurt’s acting ability that he just about pulls it off, playing Paulson as a tragic man of principle who doesn’t want to bail the banks out, honest, but is constantly beset and betrayed by turncoat bankers, obstinate politicians, and meddling British regulators. Many’s the scene where Paulson is shown weeping softly in front of a bathroom mirror, vomiting with anxiety at the thought of a global financial collapse, or wandering the streets of Manhattan like the male lead in a rom-com during the obligatory post-break-up montage. Contrary to the popular perception of Paulson as a Wall Street crony who exploited taxpayers to bail out his old pals at Goldman Sachs, the film argues that he was a stalwart public servant who did what had to be done with his back against the wall.
Among the many talented actors sharing the screen with Hurt are Billy Crudup, whose Timothy Geithner comes off as Paulson’s handsome boy sidekick, and Paul Giamatti, who plays Ben Bernanke to quivering, wooly-bearded perfection. What you won’t see during the movie’s one hour and forty-five minute running time is any major character with less than a seven-figure net worth. Oh, they’re around, as in the scene where Geithner runs into some commoners during his morning jog and bums himself out thinking about how ill-prepared they are for the impending economic disaster. But this movie is Wall Street’s story, told almost exclusively from Wall Street’s perspective. As a result, many important details of the crisis and its origins are elided. There is one stand-out scene where Paulson and his staff discuss the insanity of unregulated derivatives and the exploitation of homeowners by subprime lenders, but when asked why there weren’t laws in place to prevent all this, Paulson’s too-pat answer is “Nobody wanted it.”
Ultimately, Too Big to Fail is a highly watchable account of how powerful men with too much money and too little self-awareness brought the world to the brink of financial ruin. But as a historical document, it devotes far too little attention to the conservative push for deregulation that allowed events to spiral so far out of control, or to the impact of the crisis outside the glass towers of Wall Street. Watching it in isolation, one would be forgiven for thinking that 2008 was simply a very stressful year in the life of Hank Paulson rather than the turning point in an ideological battle that has been developing since the days of the New Deal. For a more in-depth look at the origins of the crisis, you should check out Roosevelt Institute Senior Fellow Jeff Madrick’s fascinating new book, The Age of Greed: The Triumph of Finance and the Decline of America, 1970 to the Present, which hits shelves on May 31st.
Tim Price is a Communications Officer at the Roosevelt Institute.