Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Movie Review: Too Big to Fail

 Ask Dirk Nowitzki: Big Equals Bountiful

Just like Dirk Nowitzki, a seven-foot stud whose playoff performances embody Sheen's "Winning" trademark, Too Big to Fail delivers its own game-winning performances, elevating stale, often bland dramatic non-fiction to gripping achievement. 

       I was poised and committed to watching game four between the Dallas Mavericks and Oklahoma City Thunder. But then a familiar slogan hit me like a ton of bricks: It's not TV. It's HBO. Unbeknownst to me, an appalling admission that I'm forced to concede, the king of premium cable was debuting its made-for-TV movie about the 2008 U.S. economic meltdown; the repercussions from the calamitous downturn are still keenly felt. As a student of the economy and a lover of cinema, this two-hour production exemplified my most impassioned plea for entertainment; a marriage of intrigue and personal edification. In other words, I passed on Dirk, Durant and Westbrook. Just like the late 90's, early 2000's (think The Sopranos), HBO had my full and undivided attention. So the question I'm forced to face, appropriate given the opportunity cost of missing a compelling playoff game, is did they succeed?
      First, some background on the downturn. Bear with me. I'm only donning my economic hat for a moment of clarity. The financial crisis has its foremost origins in mortgage lending. But there is more to the story. Sub-prime lenders wanted to increase revenues while competition arose from rising incomes, economic expansion, governmental deregulation (for example, the repeal of the Glass-Steagall Act, which was intended to separate investment and commercial banking), booming real estate development, clever, wealth-centric investment bankers (the creation of securitization, which is a fancy way to offset the risk of these high default-risk loans), Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac (who used the Community Reinvestment Act to justify sub-prime mortgage loans), foolhardy, soon-to-be homeowners (with sub-prime credit ratings below 540 and virtually no down payment requirements) and finally, the penultimate chapter, the unsustainable rise of housing prices (the bubble's gotta burst at some point). This chain of events led to the devastating recession. Sorkin's book and Hanson's film explain, elucidate, and detail these controversial circumstances. Credit got tight. 

      Too Big to Fail is well suited for a fictional retelling. Perhaps, it is merely a coincidence of surname chutzpah. Andrew Sorkin, the author of Too Big to Fail, the blueprint for director Curtis Hanson's narrative—a behind-the-scenes account of how decision makers in Washington and Wall Street responded to the looming 2008 financial meltdown—shares the famous Sorkin last name with Aaron, who, in similar bombastic, vigorous fashion, details the relatively apolitical story of the founding of Facebook, in David Fincher's critical hit The Social Network. The only difference (beyond Fincher's technical brilliance): in the vein of the smarmy Harry Ellis from Die Hard, Aaron uses keyboards and Andrew uses cell phones. They're both quite adept at dramatizing dueling conversations of technical jargon, transforming dry, verbal exchanges into melodic, almost-Shakespearean (less so for Andrew and Gould) conflicts of great urgency. But it's a credit to Andrew Sorkin's reporting, Peter Gould's screenplay (Breaking Bad) and Curtis Hanson's direction (L.A. Confidential), which enables Too Big to Fail to function as a thriller despite the inherent pabulum of Wall Street talk.  
      Molding a financial thriller without any blood, any overt violence, any bodies hitting the floor, is no easy task. How does one conjure excitement when the bulk of the action consists of middle-aged white men in suits commiserating on the phone? After all, the narrative is driven by private conversations between the biggest of bigwigs in boardrooms, bedrooms, and private jets. Well, Hanson wields every cinematic trick in the book, and succeeds because the danger of Wall Street (and Main Street) excess is real. Hanson lets you peer into the humanity of the major players, witness their hubris, their ego. You see Hank Paulson (William Hurt) literally vomiting and Dick Fuld (James Woods) crying with his wife as their world fell apart. These are the underpinnings of dramatic context, fueling Sorkin's comprehensive examination to a robust character/national study. 

      The hero of Sorkin's version of events (which are credible and considered largely accurate) is Treasury secretary Hank Paulson. And William Hurt portrays Mr. Paulson, a pragmatist of superior intelligence, with great honesty and humility, at times intimating the grave stress incumbent on a man in his position; a man who must steer America (and the World) through a dour crisis. Hurt's performance is stellar. The Federal Reserve chairman Ben S. Bernanke, played by Paul Giamatti, is equally captivating. Giamatti inherits the deepest recesses of Bernanke's tormented mind while also capturing his quiet, powerful resolve and weathered acumen. 
      HBO productions, let's be honest, support more honest, authentic, unencumbered spectacles of language and environment. HBO is unaffected by the constraints (predominantly economic) of broadcasting on Cable TV. And few can author turgid, histrionic assaults with more flair than James Woods. As Richard S. Fuld Jr., the chief executive of Lehman Brothers, Woods provides some adrenaline-inducing dramatics that Cable broadcast stations would disavow. Even Timothy F. Geithner, president of the Federal Reserve Bank of New York (played by Billy Crudup), flings around the Woodsian vulgarities with earnest abandon. These lucid spouts of vitriol illustrate just how big a crisis it really was.  

      Hanson, Gould and company, through an effective, rich and tense lens, goose the subject matter. The exposition can be heavy-handed. But Hanson examines the turmoil by conveying a sober, omnipresent self-awareness; a steady acknowledgment of the grave dangers of the downturn. Moreover, Hanson creates a blistering sense of urgency. Characters stride purposefully down long corridors, surrounded by droves of aides, bellowing into their BlackBerrys. This is a crisis. There's no time for civil discourse; profanities fly freely.
      Part of the fun of Too Big to Fail, at least for me, is trying to recognize the famous people from Hollywood who are impersonating the famous people from Wall Street. In a personal sense, seeing Ed Asner play Warren Buffett (the Oracle of Omaha) and Tony Shalhoub play John J. Mack (chief executive of Morgan Stanley) is a thrilling experience; perhaps, such incidents may not be as exciting to others.
      The mortgage crisis is such a sprawling, complex story that Hanson's film shrewdly focuses on the days immediately before and after the Lehman bankruptcy, and the passage of the TARP bill. The subject matter may be parched, but the conversations are fertile. Hurt, Crudup and the rest deliver their lines with stunning conviction, Hanson directs the proceedings with deft fluidity, and Marcelo Zarvos composes a score so effective— consistent, thumping music in the background, which embellishes the tension and suspense—that you may be surprised to feel your heart flutter.  
      It could have been oppressively boring; the kind of film your economics professor would subject you to after a big exam. While Hanson's film inherits the stigma of technical-ridden, banal subject matter, Too Big to Fail actually delivers reasonable entertainment—the kind of entertainment that could also teach you a little something-something. It is an incisive, balanced, even bi-partisan, politic look at one of America's darkest periods (economically speaking, of course). It's educational, it's entertaining. It's Hollywood, it's mainstream. It's even compelling enough to steer me away from a pivotal NBA playoff game. Just like Dirk Nowitzki, a seven-foot stud whose playoff performances embody Sheen's "Winning" trademark, Too Big to Fail delivers its own game-winning performances, elevating stale, often bland dramatic non-fiction to gripping achievement.

8 out of 10

*Too Big to Fail extended trailer. 


  1. Simply mention Wall Street and my eyes start to glaze, the lids drooping as I slip into a coma. I trust your judgment however, so I will have to give this film a viewing at some point in the near future. Excellent review as always and now I'm off to look up those dratted financial terms like subprime. You know, I always accounted myself as having a great vocabulary, but darn it if you don't always send me to the dictionary. Stop trying to make me smarter. :P

  2. Great review as always, Matt! Never heard about this HBO film before but with William Hurt and James Woods in it, this definitely has a good cast.

  3. I've never ever heard of this film before, but according to your wonderful review, it's well worth seeing.

  4. @ Melissa

    Haha. I guess I should be flattered...thank you. I'm glad my command of the English language can be so imposing. But don't sell yourself short in the slightest. Your vocabulary, and more importantly your diction, is superb.

    My two biggest passions are movies and investing. This movie was very personal for me, in that respect.

    You should definitely give it an investment of your time. It's enlightening and entertaining. Any time a film can be evocative and educational, it's a must-see in my book. And the Wall Street jargon is pretty limited. This is a film that's made for people outside of the know-how. I suspect you'll enjoy it.

  5. @ Jaccstev

    Thanks! The cast is outstanding. It's dynamic and rich. You'll find yourself pointing out all the sort of small parts of some big time character actors. It's a whos-who; guys like Bill Pullman and Matthew Modine, and so many others.

    @ Nebular

    Thanks homes! Just like I said to Melissa, even if your not excited by the prospect of a movie that delves into finance, you'll still enjoy it. It's good drama. It's really a good thriller.

  6. must admit I've never heard about this one, Matty!

  7. Sounds like a great watch.

    I'm one of the lucky folks having blogger commenting issues. :-\

  8. @ Dezmond

    Look out for its schedule on HBO. I think you'll like it!

    @ Mary

    It absolutely is!

    I sympathize with your commenting woes. I've experienced some issues recently. At one point, I typed out a 2-paragraph comment, hit send, and to my seething bewilderment, the infamous error message popped up. Frustrating. Very frustrating.

  9. I can't pretend I understand all the ins and outs of this financial situation - or ANY financial situation - when purchasing I usually hold out all my cash in one or both hands and let the cashier pull out what's needed - but I totally understand getting jazzed up when a movie about a subject you love does well by it - and I'm glad this one did for you! HBO has been pretty danged spot-on for a couple of decades now with these things - you truly wonder sometimes why certain of their projects didn't make it as a Big Screen project - but quality is quality, no matter where it's coming from. Quick connected anecdote - worked briefly with James Woods on a Hallmark Hall of Fame TV movie called The Summer of Ben Tyler - and guess what? He doesn't need a script or writers to help him with his "Woodsian vulgarities" off camera - not a bad guy at all - but high energy and almost always carrying an R rating...great review Matty! We'll check 'er out!

  10. Thanks for the kind and thoughtful reassurance. The greatest of cinema is that which appeals, in a multi-textured sense, to one's most fervent passions. Too Big to Fail, in premise, was that very film for me. I love economics, the stock market, finance...and I love movies, characters, stories, drama, conflict, tension, etc., etc. While it's not a groundbreaking or transcendent film (Terrence Malick didn't make it after all), it is enlightening. And because it falls under the umbrella of my deepest interests, it's a success before it even airs. But, of course, it has to be at least commendable to be worthy of recommendation. Too Big to Fail was commendable, even for those who are not as passionate about economics as I.

    Great anecdote about you and James Woods. I'm not even genuinely surprised by your first-hand assessment of his personality. His interviews reveal the same level of bombastic verbosity and quick wit that is the trademark of many of his cinematic characters. I'd love to meet him myself.

    Thanks again, buddy!