Tuesday, May 24, 2011

"Too Big to Fail" Passes: It's a Must-See

                                                                                     HBO Photo
The most fun thing about watching "Too Big to Fail,"running throughout May and June on HBO, is seeing all the great actors (and one actress) in their roles as power brokers in this drama about the failure of Lehman Brothers, AIG and almost all of Wall Street in September 2008.  William Hurt, Paul Giamatti, James Woods, Tony Shalhoub, Billy Crudup, Bill Pullman, Michael O'Keefe, Topher Grace, Cynthia Nixon and more appear.

But this movie is not supposed to be fun. It should be - and is - an educational look at what happened to the U.S. financial system - how years of deregulation, funky financial products and runaway banks who tanked the housing market nearly caused another great depression.  It's also about how the federal government and the investment banks wheeled and dealed to save the system.

The movie very closely follows Andrew Ross Sorkin's book of the same title on which it is based.  There are a couple of extras.

I don't remember reading that Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson is a Christian Scientist.

I do, however, recall the characterizations of the principals of the financial firms as pretty unsavory and extremely selfish.  The film also portrays the SEC as wimpy and powerless while those at Treasury have backbones.

Additionally, women are portrayed as background players who have no idea what's going on.  When Cynthia Nixon's character, the PR person for Treasury, is told to hold a news conference, the guys have to explain the situation to her so she can properly inform the media.  Pretty misogynistic.

Senator John McCain is also made to look bad for screwing up a meeting at the White House where Congressional leaders were supposed to come up with a plan that would make them look like heroes. By all accounts that is true.

Even Alan Greenspan, the once revered FED chairman, is made to look like an idiot when a character relays his suggestion that the government buy up all the foreclosed-on homes. He thought they should be burned to the ground to create a housing shortage that would drive prices back up. Seriously?

Anyone in the financial world knows this story already, and then some.  But the general public has remained largely in the dark. In the years since all this took place, not much has changed.  Wall Street has come back, but the housing market has not and millions of people are still jobless.

Even worse, there has been no significant legislation passed that would reverse what caused the collapse of the system. No one went to jail. And those who created the mess are still earning billions. Compensation on Wall Street reached $135 billion, according to the film.

If books and movies like "Too Big to Fail" are produced to send a message, this one succeeds. It's too bad it's unlikely anyone will respond.

Note:  A companion film, "Too Big to Fail: Opening the Vault to the Financial Crisis," a look at the 2008 financial crisis with the cast & crew of the original film plus financial experts and others is also running this month and next on HBO.

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