Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Too Big to Fail

. Tuesday, June 7, 2011

I watched the HBO adaptation of Andrew Ross Sorkin's book last night, and I liked it quite a bit. I'm predisposed to like it, having both read the book and followed the news at the time and since then. The story is well done and accurate, the film itself is very well made. The cast is phenomenal and the acting delivers on that promise.

There isn't a whole lot of overt politics in it, but politics is like a fog hanging over everything in the story. Government actors routinely feel constrained by democratic politics, and end up being all but forced to make decisions that they despise. Politicians try to use the crisis for electoral gain. Private sector actors try to collect as many rents as they can, and in the end some of them get quite a lot, while others get nearly none. The movie is pessimistic in general.

Hank Poulsen (excellently played by William Hurt) is portrayed as something of a tortured saint overcome by events. Somewhat odd, given both his rough real-life demeanor and his involvement in the excesses that culminated in the financial crisis, but I believe the portrayal of his moral judgment is true to life. Anyway, William Hurt probably can't play anything but a noble figure -- at one point an aide tells him to get some sleep, as he looks worn down; except he doesn't -- but there is perhaps some nobility in the way Poulsen abandoned his guiding principles when events changed. I guess that's a matter of opinion.

Geithner (Billy Crudup) is a crass-talking pragmatist who seems to have no ideology at all, other than "don't let this blow up". Bernanke (Paul Giamatti) pops in from time to time to remind everyone of the gravity of the situation for the entire economy, not just their firms. I have no idea if the rest of the cast -- notables include Fuld (James Woods), Dimon (Bill Pullman), Blankfein (Evan Handler), Thain (Matthew Modine), Mack (Tony "Monk" Shalhoub), Buffett (Ed Asner), plus Topher Grace and Cynthia Nixon as Treasury Dept officials -- match their characters well or poorly, but the overall ensemble works very well. The dialogue and plot move quickly, and I fear that viewers without a fairly strong base of prior knowledge will have difficulty following what's happening. There are a few moments when characters (semi-awkwardly) try to break down what's going on for a slow-on-the-uptake staffer or Congressperson, but it's fairly clearly for the benefit of the audience. That's fine; those instances are few and brief and necessary.

Most of all, one gets the same sense from the film as from the book: nobody understood just what they were up against. Every CEO thought his (they were/are all men) firm was stronger than it was. Every regulator had no idea what was going on in those firms. Nobody understood how susceptible they were to a run. Nobody seemed to be aware of how reliant they all were on AIG, and how fragile AIG was. When Poulsen gets on his knees before Nancy Pelosi (a true anecdote), it's hard to tell whether he's asking for help or to be put out of his misery.

The story is about ignorance, throughout the financial sector and indeed the broader economy. And when things go wrong, the ignorant panic. And when panic sets in, the game's up. It's a confidence game.

The parts of the movie that fall the flattest are the ones that try to "humanize" some of the characters. Poulsen agonizing to his wife. Buffett entertaining his grandkids. Fuld cursing the gods (over and over). There isn't very much of that, but the film could still do with less. Other than those minor distractions, I liked it quite a lot.

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Too Big to Fail
 
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