Reel Matt

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Too Big to Fail

Film #379


Chronicles the financial meltdown of 2008 and centers on Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson.

Year 2, Film #14

THE REVIEW: In the realm of politics, the only area I really care about is the financial sector; partly because of its importance, partly because it’s the only area I’m remotely familiar with. As with most things my knowledge in the area consists of knowing a bunch of buzzwords and key topics so I can sound smart in a conversation and sort of follow along with what’s being said. However, if I was forced to do an economist’s job, such as that of the Secretary of the Treasury or Chairman of the Fed, we’d all be in a disaster. Knowledge, or lack thereof, aside, what does this have to do with the film To Big to Fail? Well, it delivers on entertainment but falls shy on staying clear and being easy to follow, which in turn affects the entertainment quality a bit.

Interest in finance or not, Too Big to Fail is entertaining to watch. By all standards this is a drama; it just happens to deal with money and economies. Also going for it is the fact that it deals with a very recent news event, that of the 2008 financial meltdown and the beginnings of what is now known as the Great Recession. How did we get into this mess, what was going on behind the scenes during, and most importantly, how did we get out (or at least ease the damage)? There is a lot of jargon thrown about but it’s still accessible because this collapse was such a big part of the United States history in recent years. Maybe it’s just me and the people I hang out with, but people like Ben Bernanke (portrayed by Paul Giamatti), Henry Paulson (portrayed by William Hurt), and Timothy Geitner (portrayed by Billy Crudup) are household names. And to actually see them at their jobs and not just hear their names on TV or see them on a dollar bill, was incredibly exciting. It wasn’t quite heart-pounding and not much adrenaline was released, but Too Big to Fail was nonetheless quite exhilarating. To see all these deals be made and how something impossible can turn into a possibility only to fall apart at the end is fascinating. It doesn’t necessarily make you sympathetic with the wealthy bank executives or the politicians but it certainly makes you somewhat empathetic as you watch them navigate extremely dangerous waters to avoid what Bernanke hypothesized could have been worse than the Great Depression back in the 1930s.

As much as Too Big to Fail is exciting to see a dramatization of the behind the scenes of the news story that’s been front-and-center for the past few years, there was a lot of inside baseball. Going back to my “extensive knowledge” (read: very little), this provided a little added treat for me watching the film. However, while I could recognize terms like “credit-default swaps”, “mortgage-backed securities”, and “capital injection” things got really complicated, really fast. The biggest problem with the film is that there are just too many character to keep track of. In addition to Paulson, Bernanke, and Geithner, there are the Chairmen of nine major banks such as Jamie Dimon (Bill Pullman) of JPMorgan Chase and John Mack (Tony Shalhoub) of Morgan Stanley, a bunch of executives of Lehman Brothers including Chairman Dick Fuld (James Woods) and President Joe Gregory (John Heard), and politicians like Chris Dodd (Steve Tom) and Barney Frank (Dan Hedaya) who served on the U.S. House Financial Services Committee). You’re probably struggling to remember all these names here just reading them and paying attention solely to that. Once you throw in the confusing jargon and relationships between everyone and everything on top of trying to assign the names to the faces, and Too Big to Fail is just a big mess. It never reaches the point where you just want to give up or even the point where you become frustrated trying to sort through everything. But it’s annoying enough, and confusing enough, that it takes away from the dramatic reenactment that’s unfolding before your eyes. If you need to spend time remember who is the head of which bank and which bank are they trying to merge with to get what favors from the government instead of just experiencing it all, that’s when you know it’s too complicated.

Too Big to Fail is certainly too big. It’s impressive, massive (and impressively massive) cast is filled with extraordinary talent who do a great job at dramatizing the behind-the-scenes events of the 2008 financial meltdown. For someone like me who finds this area particularly fascinating, the film was even more entertaining in that sense. But it is overwhelming at times and complicated to follow along with, even if you know what’s happening. I wouldn’t say it fails but it certainly isn’t what I’d consider a safe investment. 

THE RATING: 3 out of 5