The Financial Crisis: Would That it Were So ClearForum Film Festival in Economist, October 27, 2011
WHEN the HBO docudrama “Too Big to Fail” first aired on American television in May, many critics were willing to extend the project some credit, as it were, for seeking thrills in a situation that Michael Kinsley described as “Too Complicated to Understand”. The film was co-produced by Andrew Ross Sorkin, the New York Times journalist who wrote the 640-page book about the 2008 financial crisis on which it was based (reviewed here), and the result is an altogether faithful condensation of Mr Sorkin’s text, with the occasional license taken for dramatic effect. (A scene with the treasury secretary Hank Paulson, played by a brooding William Hurt, wandering about a nearly empty Times Square at dawn is as visually striking as it is preposterous.) Mr Kinsley gently chided the film for ramping up the excitement—“‘Too Big to Fail’ uses all the familiar ‘Law & Order’ techniques for creating a sense of urgency on the cheap”—but he accepted Mr Sorkin’s version of what happened in 2008, praising the movie for telling the story “with exemplary clarity.” The Economist deemed the film “fast-paced, well-acted and clear,” a lucid portrayal of “the ugly choice between bail-out and total meltdown.”
Along similar lines, other reviews suggested that the film’s “clarity” or “efficiency” was to be commended, but I cannot help but wonder whether such clarity, in this case, obscures more than it reveals. I recently watched the film again, at Fordham Law School’s Forum Film Festival in New York City, and was reminded why “Too Big To Fail” didn’t sit well with me the first time around. It wasn’t just the clumsy exposition, the many male characters delivering extended monologues about finance to the few women, earnestly explaining What It’s All About. Nor was it the penchant for melodramatic pauses: Mr Paulson spends an inordinate time staring at his reflection, suggesting that the answer to the perennial moral question, “Can you look at yourself in the mirror?” is, at least according to this movie, an emphatic "Yes".
What I found most bothersome was precisely what the critics applauded, which was how assuredly “Too Big to Fail” makes its case. Every resource at the filmmakers’ disposal is used to portray the bailouts as not only judicious but a no-brainer. What Hank wants, Hank must get. Abiding by the conventions of a thriller, the movie prizes decisiveness, as if ambiguity is for sissies—when ambiguity is acknowledged at all. Elided until the very end is the question of what the banks actually ended up doing with their bail-out money, which was given with the expectation that they would lend it out but without requiring that they actually do so: a few title cards before the credits indicate that the banks didn’t lend much of the money, and that the financial industry’s fortunes soared while the American taxpayers were left behind. In other words, a few sentences of text at the end stand somewhat at odds with the 98 minutes of heart-thumping urgency that came before.
The screening at the Forum Film Festival was followed by a discussion between Mr Sorkin and former chairman of the Federal Reserve, Paul Volcker. Asked by the moderator about his largely sympathetic portraits of the government and industry figures involved, Mr Sorkin responded by describing the film as “a human drama, it’s about people.” Mr Volcker, for his part, appeared amused, saying, “The strongest thing in that film [was a moment when one of the bankers asks] ‘Why are you going to do this, are you going to take my money away?’” Both men agreed that some sort of government response was necessary at the time, though the alacrity with which the Troubled Asset Relief Program was pushed through Congress was less troublesome to Mr Sorkin, who cited a confidential spreadsheet that predicted 25% unemployment if Mr Paulson’s efforts had failed. Mr Volcker was shaking his head. “I don’t believe that,” he said. “Not in this modern economy. It could’ve gotten a lot worse, but let’s not talk about 25%.”
The kind of scepticism exhibited by Mr Volcker was altogether missing from the film we had just seen. “Too Big to Fail” charges forward as if the economic decisions it portrays were as clear as, well, numbers on a spreadsheet, but sometimes pretensions to clarity can be most muddling of all.