Wednesday, May 25, 2011

On the Small Screen: TOO BIG TO FAIL (2011)

At the heart, almost at the literal center of Curtis Hanson's ensemble-piece history play for HBO is a piece of exposition that renders much of Hanson's talking-head, men-in-crisis drama redundant. Treasury Secretary Hank Paulson (William Hurt) and his staff sit down and spell out exactly what led to the mortgage crisis of 2008 to help their media rep prepare a briefing for the media. Their account may not convince everyone -- it probably places too much blame on greedy bankers and not enough on government social-engineering to please some ideologues -- but it left me feeling that the process they described, the commodification of mortgages; the growing pressure from banks themselves to lend to less capable borrowers so that mortgages could be bundled and sold elsewhere; the meteoric rise of credit default swaps and an industry of default insurance that exposed firms to risks they refused to imagine -- was what should have been dramatized rather than the labors of bureaucrats to bail out the banks. We can't really appreciate how precipitate the fall was unless we've seen the rise, but Hanson opens in mid-fall, with Richard Fuld of Lehman Brothers (James Woods) struggling to survive while denying the scope of the crisis. Too Big To Fail would have been better off with a scene -- made up if necessary -- showing Fuld and his fellow bankers in their glory before the fall and introducing as many of our other cast members as could plausibly fit. Throughout, Hanson's film gives proof that his writers, perhaps intimidated by their proximity to historic events, haven't made enough effort to dramatize the story. The events are dramatic enough to keep the movie moving fairly smartly, but its scope always seems a little off. If Paulson is to be the principal character, he should be developed more, maybe taking him back to his appointment to Treasury. For that matter, the absence of George W. Bush as a dramatic character (the real man is shown in news clips) seems to leave a big hole in the story, especially when we get occasional reminders of the political pressures Paulson labors under. It's also strange to see John McCain reduced to the back of an actor's head as if we were back in the days when you couldn't show FDR on screen while he lived and ruled, when Ed Harris will play McCain for HBO later this year. Sometimes the film seems too narrow in scope, and sometimes it seems to be trying to do too much at once. We would have been better off with more longer scenes like the one I described earlier; a film like this shouldn't fear exposition -- it is practically all exposition, after all -- when its purpose is to explain a complex process to us. But few scenes are allowed to run as long as they might need to for clarity or character development. A whole film might have been made of any number of scenes in this brisk exercise of little more than 90 minutes, and any of those theoretical films could have made the same points Too Big To Fail did in more effectively dramatic fashion if writers were committed to dramatizing them properly. What I'm saying is that this story had the makings of a great film, while Hanson gave us one that is only effective in a workmanlike way. It does drive one point home very effectively: something is terribly wrong with a social order that obliges the government and taxpayers to bail out largely unrepentant bankers on their own terms in order to prevent their collapse from wiping out multitudes in the economic tsunami that would follow. The banking system may be "too big to fail" but no individual banker should be. If HBO and Curtis Hanson expected anger from their audience, then despite all I've said, we ought to count Too Big To Fail a success -- but that still depends on the audience.

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