Judge Gordon Sullivan got soaked investing in subprime rain gauges.
Main Street took the fall. Wall Street got the check.
My college economics professor claimed that American English was the one language in the world that contained the phrase, "to make money." Of course, the idea of profit is an old one, and other languages have phrases for "to print currency," but "making money" is (apparently) a uniquely American idiom. The reason (or so he said) was that our banking system is structured to do just that, make money. By taking in people's deposits, the banks are able to lend money to individuals and small businesses while turning the interest on those loans into profit (both for the bank and for depositors). It's a pretty surefire way to make money. Large purchases like cars, houses, and businesses almost all require some kind of loan, and with the right collateral structures in place the loans are all but risk-free for commercial banks. That's the way it stood for almost sixty years after the Great Depression; commercial banks (where you and I keep our money) did their thing by taking in deposits and giving out loans. Then in 1999, Bill Clinton signed the repeal of the Glass-Steagall Act (and woe be unto anyone who thinks that deregulation is the sole province of Republican politicians). This allowed banks to be considered "financial holding companies." Instead of making their money with deposits and loans, suddenly the people who held our money could gamble with it in things like futures.
So what, you might say? Why do I care if a bank is bank or a "financial holding company?" Well, the big issue is that banks have strict guidelines about how loans are handled: rules about down payments, income, and collateral. This ensures that only people who can actually pay back loans get money, and depositors don't lose what they've deposited because the banks loaned it to a deadbeat. After 1999, though, banks could make more money by investing in things besides collateral-guarded loans—things like subprime mortgages.
I hope by now some of these terms (like "subprime mortgage") are starting to ring some bells. All this led up to the financial "meltdown" of 2008, the effects of which we are still experiencing as I type this. All this talk of Glass-Steagall and subprime mortgages might sounds boring, but it's important background to a story that needs to be told. Too Big to Fail is the film that tells that story. How the 2008 meltdown could have happened, how it started, and how a few people pulled the entire world's economy from the brink of total, possibly irrecoverable, disaster.
Facts of the Case
The story starts in the summer of 2008 as all eyes are on the Lehman Brothers, an investment bank, the fourth-largest in the country. Since the fifth-largest bank had already tanked (Bear Stearns), everyone expects Lehman to sink as well. Secretary of the Treasury Hank Paulson (William Hurt, Body Heat) isn't going to let that happen. Since this is a problem for more than just the folks at Lehman Brothers, Paulson calls in members of government (including the head of the New York Federal Reserve, played by Billy Crudup) and the heads of the other major banks (including Bill Pullman, Matthew Modine, and Tony Shalhoub). Disaster is mostly averted, but the U.S. government has to inject billions of dollars into the banking industry, and the film's second half follows Paulson as he negotiates that deal.
Perhaps the most amazing thing about Too Big to Fail is that it covers so much ground in so little time. In less than 100 minutes, we get a solid history lesson, a dose of economic theory and a thrilling story of a small group of people essentially saving the world. No, it's not The Avengers, but Paulson and his team made decisions under pressure that ensure that the world economy didn't collapse. Their motivations and decisions will be analyzed for decades to come, but Too Big to Fail produces a compelling portrait of the stakes of Paulson's actions and just how difficult all those decisions were to make.
Curtis Hanson (of L.A. Confidential fame) made the wise choice of casting a series of famous faces as these characters and it helps tremendously. On one level, I feel like movies of this type cast unknowns, and when the stuff starts flying, it's hard to tell what's going on because we don't know who either the characters or the actors are. With Too Big to Fail, things get much easier. I may never remember the president of Morgan Stanley in 2008, but I recognize Tony Shalhoub. The same goes for the rest of the cast, which includes everyone from Paul Giamatti to Ed Asner. Of course, on another level, Hanson did the right thing by getting a bunch of great actors together. All the performances here are spectacular. Even those who only appear in a few scenes help carry the gravity of the situation, and William Hurt gives a phenomenal performance as a man who must sacrifice his principles to save the world.
Though Too Big to Fail was shot for HBO as a television movie, it was shot on film (not contemporary looking video) and the 1.78:1/1080p AVC-encoded high definition transfer is excellent. Detail is strong, colors are well-saturated, and black levels are solid and deep. Grain is appropriate and well-rendered, and no digital trickery crops up to mar the image. The DTS-HD 5.1 Master Audio track keeps the dialogue clear in the front and uses the surrounds occasionally for atmosphere.
Extras start with a 2-minute promo (the kind that runs as a bumper between HBO content) and a 20-minute "making-of" that includes input from the filmmakers, but also journalists and economists talking about the crisis. Finally, for those having trouble with the dates, there's a handy interactive timeline that includes all the important dates for the crisis.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
For some viewers, there's nothing that anyone can do to make economic woes seem interesting. I sympathize with those viewers. I think that Too Big to Fail overcomes those problems, but not everyone will. Also, those who come into the film with a firm view about the way the crisis was handled will probably be turned off. Too Big to Fail paints a pretty heroic portrait of Paulson. While he's not made out to be a superhero, those who think he mishandled things will be disappointed. Similarly, there were a lot more opportunities for playing the blame game than the movie shows. Those who'd like to see a depiction of every major banking official with egg on his or her face will have to look elsewhere.
Too Big to Fail isn't a perfect portrait of the 2008 financial crisis, but for a fiction film, it does an effective job setting up the stakes of the meltdown and showing how an even greater crisis was avoided. The acting is top-notch and the production values high; this Blu-ray presents both very effectively. It's definitely worth a rental for fans of the actors or anyone interested in dipping a toe into the waters of understanding our current economic issues.
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