Last night, HBO premiered Too Big to Fail, a movie based on Andrew Ross Sorkin’s book, Too Big to Fail: The Inside Story of How Wall Street and Washington Fought to Save the Financial System — and Themselves, based on the events of the financial meltdown of 2008 starring Bear Stearns, Lehman Brothers, Goldman Sachs, AIG, The Federal Reserve Bank of New York, and the Department of the Treasury. The dramatization focused on the events surrounding just a few days; the aftermath of the decisions by the men leading these companies — all men, by the way — and the “Main Street” side of the collapse comprise the real story, and this was reduced to off-handed remarks and the film’s text-based epilogue prior to the closing credits.
The film portrayed Hank Paulson, then Treasury Secretary, Timothy Geithner, then head of the New York Federal Reserve, and Ben Bernanke, Fed Chairman, as the mostly-good guys, trying desperately save the world from financial collapse, and the CEOs of the major financial corporations as the somewhat-bad guys, holding off on saving the world, but ultimately giving in. The film showed the chief of the Securities Exchange Commission, ordered by the government to step in to force the hand of the corporations, uncomfortable with the role the government was playing in forcing — or strongly encouraging — deals and moves.
If you’ve been a bit confused about how the world came to the brisk of total financial collapse at this time, the characters in the movie do a good job of succinctly explaining the series of events that brought the financial system to this point. When Paulson is asked why no regulation prevented these problems, he exhibits the only appearance of greed in the movie by offering the excuse that they were making too much money.
Almost every line of the movie touches on financial terms, so this might not be a film that holds the interest of the typical audience. There is drama and tension, so it works, but having some understanding of finance helps get through the plot. Like Titanic, the audience knows the ending, and it is the set of events that bring the film to its eventual conclusion that makes it interesting.
Catch Too Big to Fail on HBO. It may not provide new major insights into the financial collapse, but the actors’ performances make this film work. If you have seen the film, share your thoughts.
Updated May 28, 2011 and originally published May 24, 2011.