A film review by Craig J. Koban July 22, 2011



2011, no MPAA rating, 92 mins.


William Hurt: Henry Paulson / James Woods: Dick Fuld / Paul Giamatti: Ben Bernake / Billy Crudup: Tomothy Geithner / Edward Asner: Warren Buffett


Directed by Curtis Hanson / Written by Peter Gould, based on the book by Andrew Ross Sorkin

I believe that part of the failure of Curtis Hansonís HBO telefilm TOO BIG TO FAIL is that it tells a story ultimately too big for its paltry 90-plus minute running time.  

Based on New York Times reporter Andrew Ross Sporkinís book and adapted by Peter Gould (a regular writer of TVís BREAKING BAD), the film chronicles the events of the disastrous 2008 financial crisis and the collapse of Lehman Brothers from the prerogatives of Wall Street CEOs and the U.S. Government.  Although it wisely never looks to explain why one of the largest economic collapses since the Great Depression happened, TOO BIG TO FAIL nonetheless fails to truly capture the enormity of what transpired in 2008, not to mention that it feels like the film, more or less, glosses over the entire crisis altogether. 

The colloquial phrase ďtoo big to failĒ refers to a theory that certain financial institutions are so large in scope and influence that if they were to fail then it would have calamitous affects on the nationís economy as a whole.  In order to keep this large economic engine properly running, the theory further purports that federal government assistance to these institutions would be required to keep them afloat.  This is precisely what then U.S. Secretary of the Treasury Henry Paulson (played in the film by William Hurt) had to do while trying to deal with the financial meltdown that occurred between August 2008 to October of 2008, especially when - during that period - the stock price of Lehman Brothers dropped to such horrendous lows that governmental assistance was required.  

On a positive, TOO BIG TO FAIL works as a modest parable of our recent times and as a sobering Ė if not depressing Ė warning about how greed nearly ruined Wall Street and America as a whole.  The film does what it aims to, I suppose, by relaying just how close the financial infrastructure of a mighty economic power came to complete ruin while still leaving viewers with perpetual fears and doubts that we are no where close to being clear of such toxic financial times.  Hansonís film is certainly efficient for evoking the paranoia of the time period and showing the great difficulties in place with getting all parties to agree on a successful course of action.  Yet, such a dire and endlessly complex series of events as presented in TOO BIG TO FAIL seems like an impossibly arduous task to explain within such a short film.  Too often, I felt like I was getting the Cliff Notes version of what transpired. 

Thankfully, we have an assemble of rich character actors to keep all of the dull, long-winded, and heavily expository dialogue afloat.  William Hurt essentially owns the film as Paulson, who perhaps carried most of the unendurable burden of not only dealing with the limitless financial implications of Lehman Brothersí collapse, but he also had to round up all of the big CEOs of the financial world and force them to work together, whether they wanted to or not.  Whether or not you agree with Paulson and the governmentís intervention in the crisis is perhaps besides the point in the film; what it aims to do is show what a heavy mental and physical burden the crisis placed on Paulsonís shoulders and how everyone anxiously looked to him for quick answers when there were none.  Hereís a man that, in strict adherence with Christian science (no alcohol or drugs) had to desperately find a way to get through all of those sleepless nights, all of those high pressure meetings with the private sector, and all of those nagging uncertainties of finding solutions.  Itís a surprisingly sympathetic portrait, and under Hurtís commandingly underplayed performance, Paulson is shown as a man that did what he thought was right and did his very best. 

Of course, there were other high profile heavy hitters presented in the film that tried to deal with the crisis, like Chairman of the Federal Reserve Ben Bernanke (Paul Giamatti, in a limited, but refined performance) that believes that the only thing that will calm things down is a Federal injection of cash to ensure that the economy and credit markets continue to move on as normal. His plan, however, requires approval from Congress, no easy feat, and even Paulson is skeptical of such an aid proposal going through.  Then there is Timothy Geithner (Billy Crudup) President of the Federal Reserve that attempts to arrange mergers between strong and weak banks to help with the increasingly destabilizing situation. 

Nonetheless, Paulson and Bernake lobby congress with more than a bit of fear mongering (Bernake in particular seems assured that, if nothing is done, the country would be worse off than during the Depression).  Even when the legislation seems likely to pass, it fails largely because of too many conflicting opinions, which causes the now infamous drop in the Dow Jones by 600 points in one day.  Fearing even harsher economic circumstances if not enacted (and a lot of public panic) the legislation passes on the second vote and the Emergency Economic Stabilization Act of 2008 goes through, with the only roadblock afterwards being the need for all of the high marquee CEOs to agree with it. 

There is a considerable number of real-life personas presented in the film, far too many to mention here and perhaps so many that itís no wonder that TOO BIG TO FAIL constantly employs title cards to tell audiences whoís-who throughout.  Outside of Hurt and Giamatti, I also liked Edward Asnerís turn as Warren Buffett, the CEO of Berkshire Hathaway and the then-richest man in world, who is called upon for advice by Paulson and company; I appreciated how Asner gives Buffett both an everyman charm while simultaneously showing him as a monolithic figure of the financial world.  I also liked James Woodsí fire and brimstone portrayal of Dick Fuld, Chairman and CEO of Lehman Brothers, who is essentially portrayed as egomaniacal control freak that lets his own abhorrent and gluttonous business practices rule the day.   Very early on in the film he lashes out to his lackeys, ďFuck Warren Buffett Ė we will stand strong and eat Goldman Sachsí lunch!Ē  There is perhaps no better actor at playing slimy political assholes better than Woods.  

However much I appreciated and admired some of the key individual performances and Curtis Hansonís restrained and delicate direction (which lets the performers shine through), TOO BIG TO FAIL never really comes off as a revelatory drama.  It highlights some of the players and incidents behind one of our worst financial collapses ever and acts as a strong advocate film against insatiable Wall Street greed and excess, but TOO BIG TO FAIL never really explains much more than what we already knew, especially considering the fact that we know precisely how it all ended.  Basically, the film kind of redundantly highlights how the global economic crisis was caused by corporate greed and that the corporations themselves that got us all in this mess were essentially bailed out with billions of dollars (that, in turn, made them even richer and more powerful afterwards).  No need for spoiler warning here. 

Lastly, I guess that I found TOO BIG TO FAIL Ė along with this yearís CINEMA VERITE - to be part of a disappointing downward spiral for HBO films as a whole, which over the last few years was consistently and successfully churning out high quality small screen gems that could easily match any silver screen film (recent entries like THE SUNSET LIMITED, YOU DONíT KNOW JACK, TEMPLE GRANDIN, and RECOUNT come to mind).  Itís not that there isnít abundant talent on board here: we have multiple Oscar nominated and winning actors in top form and a director in Hanson that needs to prove very little (an Oscar winner in his own right for L.A. CONFIDENTIAL).  In the end, TOO BIG TO FAIL is just too densely talky and too reliant on explanation-heavy dialogue for its own good.  There is sometimes nothing more wearisomely dull in a film than characters explaining what they are talking about, and TOO BIG TO FAIL contains so much of this that it never materializes as a dramatically enriching effort.   


CrAiGeR's other

Film Reviews:


RECOUNT  (2008 jjjj


TAKING CHANCE  (2009 jj1/2


TEMPLE GRANDIN  (2010 jjjj




YOU DON'T KNOW JACK  (2010 jjjj




CINEMA VERITE  (2011 jj1/2


GAME CHANGE  (2012) jjj




THE GIRL  (2012) jj


PHIL SPECTOR  (2013) jjj



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