I won’t watch a movie if I’ve missed the beginning, and I hate missing endings so much that I won’t start watching a movie I can’t see through to the end. As a writer, the beginning and end are two of the most important parts of the story to me. They answer two important important questions in any story: "How did we get into this?" and "How do we get out of this?"
Monday night, I watched Too Big To Fail — HBO’s eponymous adaptation of Andrew Ross Sorkin’s book — from start to finish. Yet, I still ended up feeling like I’d missed the two most important parts of the story: the beginning and the end. Thus, I never got answers to those important questions: How did we get into this mess? How do we get out of this mess?
I’ll confess. I have not yet read Sorkin’s book. It’s somewhere in my "to read" pile. Still, I felt I actually knew a good bit of the story, because I’ve spent the last three years reading and blogging about it. At least, I knew enough to know which parts of the story Too Big To Fail failed to tell.
On one hand, I have to cut filmmakers some slack. Though I haven’t read the book, I think it’s safe to assume that Too Big Too Fail came ran into the same problems as any other book-to-film adaptation: plot and characters. In this case, the filmakers were saddled with an epic story that had no heroes.
First, there’s too much story to tell, and far too little time to tell it all in a feature-length film. So some parts get cut or sacrificed for the sake of telling the important parts, when pivotal moments move the plot forward.
Second, there are too many characters to include without confusing the audience and/or blowing the filmmakers’ budget. So, some are cut entirely, their important lines or speeches are given to other principal or supporting characters. Others are folded into a composite character.
On the other hand, It also happens that Too Big To Fail‘s biggest fails are in the two same area’s: plot and character.
Let’s start with character, and some praise for Too Big To Fail. Much has been written about the casting, both in terms of the actors’ performances and the uncanny resemblances to the people they portray. (All, including the lesser-known-but-no-less-pivotal characters, are introduced by titles that give viewers their anmes and titles before fading away.)
Altogether, the writers, director, and actors do good job getting across a difficult story. Yes, the screenwriters had to invent scenes that never happened, but kept the story moving, and helped viewers keep up. I don’t know if the scene in which Henry Paulson, Jim Wilkinson, and Neel Kashkhari break down origins of the meltdown for Michele Davis — so she’d know what to tell the media — really happened or was written for the purposes I just mentioned, but it works on both counts.
The major players in the financial crisis, whose names are as well known as their faces, are well cast in both senses. William Hurt, Ed Asner, and Paul Giamatti are among the more inspired casting choices, in that regard. (I loved it when Giamatti’s Ben Bernanke became the voice of wisdom, at the moments when none of the very smart people in the room realized how big a mess they — and we — were in.) James Wood, though not a dead ringer for Richard Fuld, gives a portrayal that almost makes Fuld a sympathetic character.
In fact, there are so few sympathetic characters in this movie that it makes for some unintentionally comical moments. After the Lehman bankruptcy, Paulson goes out into the streets and walks anonymously amid the unwashed masses. Tim Geithner (portrayed by Billy Crudup, whose hair should have been bigger for the part, if you ask me) goes jogging in New York and wonders at the poor working saps going about their lives, unaware that their jobs, mortgages, home values, pensions and retirements hang over the abyss — unless the Masters of the Universe can figure out how to save the economy and their own asses at the same time — but not necessarily in that order.
I could hardly stifle a chuckle. There are so few sympathetic characters that the storytellers must send the principals out into the streets to find some, who remain anonymous and quickly face from the screen. Too Big To Fail meets Too Small To Matter, and both barely notice.
The Masters of the Universe seem like nothing so much as cranky pre-schoolers fighting over who gets more than whom, and concerned with little more than the size of their own share. At times, it seems all that separates Wall Street from Romper Room are swear words and pinstripe suits. I wanted nothing so much than to take away their personal jets and stick half of them in time-out.
That’s the problem with the characters in this movie. If you know a bit of the backstory on any of them, how little of it makes its way into the script can drive you crazy. Take Fuld, for example. In the film, while not exactly warm and cuddly, Fuld nearly comes across as a sympathetic character (and I agree with one reviewer that this is largely due to James Woods’ talent as an actor). The script makes him seem like the lone villain in a story that’s actually overburdened with them. He becomes a stand-in for the misdeeds of his fellow banksters, but he comes off more as a tragic character, done in by his tragic flaws rather than an example of what’s wrong with Wall Street.
The government opted not to bail out Lehman Brothers, but CEO Richard Fuld stood out nonetheless as a prime example of what’ wrong with Wall Street, as he sat in front of a congressional committee and defended his $484 million in compensation since 2000 — not to mention a mansion in Greenwich, Connecticut; a ski chalet in Idaho; an apartment in Manhattan; an ocean front estate on Jupiter Island, Florida, which the Fulds bought for $13.75 million in 2004, and which he sold to his wife for just $10 (though the final price, after fees and taxes, was closer to $100) in a likely attempt to hide assets due to fear of investor lawsuits.
Fuld has been subpoenaed by prosecutors investigating the collapse of Lehman Brothers, which paid $23 million in parting bonuses to executives days before going in to bankruptcy protection. An article in the December 2008 issue of New York Magazine reported that Fuld told investors one thing about the company’s financial health, while the company’s books told another story.
Likewise, Matthew Modine is passable as John Thain, though he lacks Thain’s more pronounced features. Meanwhile, the script lacks most of Thain’s more shameful deeds.
Just as Lehman was filing for bankruptcy, Merill Lynch CEO John Thain saw the writing on the wall, and Merrill Lynch — which was facing a fourth quarter loss of $15.3 billion— was sold to Bank of America for $50 billion. But when another $5 billion in losses was discovered, taxpayers (c/o the Treasury Department) ponied up $20 billion to cover what was a losing bet for Bank of America.
In December, Thain "accelerated" bonus payments, and handed out $3 million to $4 million in bonuses to Merill employees — money that appeared to come right out of the TARP money Bank of America and Merrill Lynch had gotten from taxpayers — before Bank of America took over. But he wasn’t done yet. Thain also demanded a $10 million severance bonus (down from $30 to $40 million), which he gave up pursuing after public outcry finally made a dent in Wall Street’s protective bubble.
And by now, the world knows of Thain’s expensive tastes when it comes to redecorating, as he spent about $1.2 million redecorating his Merrill Lynch office suite. The list of items (and their costs) is rather astounding (especially read in the context of an economy that has more and more people selling their stuff to pawn shops).
- Area Rug $87,784
- Mahogany Pedestal Table $25,713
- 19th Century Credenza $68,179
- Pendant Light Furniture $19,751
- 4 Pairs of Curtains $28,091
- Pair of Guest Chairs $87,784
- George IV Chair $18,468
- 6 Wall Sconces $2,741
- Parchment Waste Can $1,405
- Roman Shade Fabric $10,967
- Roman Shades $7,315
- Coffee Table $5,852
- Commode on Legs $35,115
Really. What’s wrong with Staples, anyway? (I wish I could find pictures of this stuff, but this slideshow at least shows how to reproduce Thain’s decorating spree for much, much less.)
Thain’s excess isn’t an isolated event, either. Even after Detroit executives were excoriated for flying to Washington in corporate jets to seek help for an industry whose employees actually make something — and something that people can actually use — rather than crawling from Detroit to D.C. executives from at least six financial firms that received bailout funds were still flying around in corporate jets as of mid-December.
This is a list that could, and likely will go on and on. But just the above was enough to make me ask "What’s wrong the people?" And, is it at least diagnosable, if not treatable.
And, of course, there’s no time to go into the whole story about guys like Jamie Dimon, Lloyd Blankfein and, others. What’s wrong with Wall Street, indeed?
One character, the bartender to Wall Street’s binge drinker, is conspicuous in his absence. Except for the news clips woven into the film, president George W. Bush doesn’t make so much as a cameo appearance; even in the climactic scene in which the CEOs of the remaining giant banks sign to receive TARP money. I began to wonder: Where was the president when all this was going on? Clearing brush?
Strangely absent, also, is ideology. Though the meltdown and bailout happened on the watch of a very conservative president, only once or twice are we reminded that conservative ideology was part of the context of both. You can watch the whole movie, except for some brief news clips at the beginning, never make the connection between today’s disaster and yesterday’s deregulation — a conservative theme going back to Reagan and beyond.
As for plot, some of the of the most important parts of the story — not the script but the one we’ve all been living with, the actual story of the financial crisis and ensuing recession — end up on the cutting room floor. As the movie starts, Bear Stearns has already collapsed, and it ends with the passage of the revised TARP legislation and Bush Treasury Sec. Henry Paulson getting the major banks to take TARP money.
Huh? The movie had barely started and I was already sounding like a stalled lawnmower. "But, but, but…"
- When Nancy Pelosi, upon hearing about the mess that TARP was supposed to clean up, asked "And it never occurred to you that any of this needed to be regulated?" I muttered that of course regulation occurred to them, and they fought hard to keep the very financial instruments that nearly brought down the financial system unregulated.
- When Wall Street compensation is mentioned towards the end, I was reminded that the CEO compensation measures in TARP were joke, and Wall Street knew it.
- When the banks sign on to TARP, and Paulson hopes they will use the money to lend, I couldn’t help but remember that they used the money to get bigger, and never intended to do otherwise, because they were handed a "no strings" bailout.
Even the movie’s timeline of the crisis only starts back October 2007, when the when the house of cards started to crumble with the global credit collapse, and ends shortly after the banks signed onto TARP. But that’s not where the story started, and not where it ends.
Again, I guess I can give the filmmaker’s a bit of a break. My own timeline of the meltdown goes back to 1913 with Woodrow Wilson’s signing of the Federal Reserve Act.
Obviously, that’s too far back for a feature-length film. Even just going back to the deregulation of the savings & loan industry would add up to a mini-series long enough to make even Ken Burns a bit nervous. But leave that out, and you leave out the creation of "collateralized debt obligations" or CDO’s, which played a huge role in the subprime mortgage crisis. (Not to mention leaving out characters like Charles Keating, who played a huge role in the S&L crisis. Of course, that gets into the sticky business of portraying the Keating Five, which takes us right back to the character issues I mentioned earlier.)
In fact, to get a mini-series of reasonable length you’d have to leave out the various "reforms" and other measures in the mid-to-late 90s that eased regulations on creditors, the pre-emption of state laws regulating S&L credit activities, the Contract with America that made it harder to sue companies for securities fraud, the Gramm-Leach-Bililey Act’s gutting of the Glass-Steagall Act, and Phil Gramm’s own Commodity Futures Modernization Act which deregulated the derivatives that also contributed to the meltdown.
Any of the above could be subject matter for a feature-length film. If a movie hasn’t already been made about the S&L crisis (maybe there has been, and I just haven’t seen it), there’s enough material out there to fill a feature length script. It would face the same obstacles that Too Big To Fail alternately sails above and stumbles over. But it would have a huge advantage in that history has long since written the last chapter of that story, and enough time has passed to make the telling seem more like history and less like spin.
That’s probably the biggest, and probably unavoidable, shortcoming of Too Big To Fail. It tries to tell a story that isn’t even over yet.
The people involved in the actual events are all still alive, and have considerable interest in either protecting their reputations and images — and perhaps even shielding themselves from indictment — or putting favorable frames around the story and events. And some of them still have enough power to influence how they are portrayed and how the story gets told.
Plus, Americans are still living this story. Just before the credits roll, a title fades in to explain that economists have already declared the recession over. That may be news to Americans who are living through recovery that doesn’t look much different from the recession that’s supposed to be over now. Again, it feels uncomfortably like spin.
And in the end, maybe any story about history, both ancient and not-so-ancient history is spin. A writer isn’t just someone with a story to tell, but also someone with a point of view to sell. Maybe that’s unavoidable, too.
Should you see Too Big To Fail if you get the chance? Sure. But I’d recommend you do what I’m going to do, and probably should have done before I saw the movie: read the book.
And if you see Too Big To Fail, pair it with other movies like the Oscar-winning Inside Job, Capitalism: A Love Story, Plunder: The Crime of Our Time, or the History Channel’s Crash: The Next Great Depression. Because a story like this is too big, and too important, for one movie to tell.