HBO GO is a marvel. It gives you access to all of HBO’s stellar programming and allowed me to watch Curtis Hanson’s TOO BIG TO FAIL. The film covers recent history; the frantic days between the fall of Bear Stearns and the passing of TARP focusing on the fall and attempts to save Lehman Brothers. Despite a sprawling cast of characters and sudden plot shifts, the film steadies itself by following Secretary of Treasury Henry Paulson and his team sorting through the mess and moving quickly from strategy to strategy.
The wonderful trick of TOO BIG TO FAIL lies in the actors, all familiar faces who carry the strength and gravitas to skip exposition and jump right into the chaotic events of September 2008. This mostly applies to William Hurt as Henry Paulson. His steadfast demeanor, erudite delivery, and emotional range provides the focal point we can invest in and count on. Alongside Hurt, Paul Giamatti gives a small, yet helpful performance as Ben Bernanke. Giamatti explores Bernanke’s professorial nature and sells quite dry exposition like, “As you know I am an academic and researched the Great Depression.” In Giamatti’s world weary eyes we can feel the stress these events caused on the people who knew the implications. Bill Pullman, Tony Shalhoub, and Evan Handler give short but memorable turns as CEOs Jamie Dimon, John Mack, and Llyod Blankfein adding some spice to group meetings and phone conferences.
However, TOO BIG TO FAIL gets a minor ding for casting Topher Grace as Paulson’s Chief of Staff and James Woods as Dick Fuld, CEO of Lehman. Fuld ought to have been the captain desperately trying to save his drowning business. Here Woods plays him so passively as if he knows, as we do, Lehman is going down no matter what. Grace adds nothing to otherwise vital scenes of troubleshooting in Paulson’s war room and looks totally out of place. Joey Slotnick (Yeah “Boston Public) and Cynthia Nixon compensate with the right amount of nerdy-ness and ferocity to counter Grace’s misplacement.
TOO BIG TO FAIL is a faithful and most times exciting depiction of government, Wall Street, and the media trying to save and contain the credit crisis. Since we are still sorting through the mess, the film lacks a satisfying end. In a project like this, there’s an implied desire to see these barons of finance taken to the woodshed on screen. Here we mostly see them at their problem solving best. Unfortunately, the stories of sub-prime lending, deregulation and derivatives will probably never get their all star dramatic treatment. I still have to see Oscar winning documentary INSIDE JOB for the more in depth take, but I suspect TOO BIG TO FAIL may serve as a great narrative chaser to that film.