In HBO's "Too Big to Fail," the Heroes Are Really Zeroes
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Despite warning signs , Paulson, Geithner and Bernanke had no evident plans throughout the last half of 2007 and the first eight months of 2008. Not for how to resolve Lehman after Bear Stearns' collapse, not for AIG, not for recapitalizing the banking system.
Indeed, they asked Congress for $700 billion to implement the Troubled Asset Relief Plan to buy toxic assets from the banks, and then, without any further discussion, abandoned that idea and injected capital into the banks. Many economists and financial experts had been urging them to do just that, but when they finally hit on that as a solution, it was so poorly thought out that they gave the money to the banks on overly generous terms.
This moment is depicted at the end of the movie, and because it is both a triumph in the conventional narrative sense, but also a major mistake by our heroes, it is the point at which the movie is most cognitively dissonant. Paulson, Bernanke and Geithner have finally come to their solution: Put capital in the banks. They gather outside the boardroom where they are going to confront the CEOs.
For purposes of dramatic tension, we have to see their nervousness that the deal won't go through. The Treasury secretary and the two most powerful central bankers in the country are about rescue these CEOs and their institutions from their own recklessness, yet they cower in fear of rejection.
Of course, this rings true because the government drove awful bargains. In the aftermath of the greatest credit bubble in history, it protected creditors at almost every turn. The government gave the banks money but didn't get voting rights and didn't prevent the banks from using the money to pay dividends or bonuses. They wrote what was essentially a blank check. In real life, Warren Buffett got much better terms when he invested in Goldman Sachs.
What is the audience to make of these scenes? Paulson, our supposed hero, insists that if the government puts any restrictions on the money, "They won't take it!"
It's left to the hapless PR woman, played by Cynthia Nixon (who has, moments earlier, had the crisis explained to her in words of one syllable for the sake of her, and the audience's, simple minds), to wonder why, if the government is saving these institutions, it couldn't impose any limits on how the money be used.
The banks do take the money, of course. They have no choice by the conventions of Hollywood. Nor did they in real life, something that the Three Musketeers never fully appreciated.
After the scene, the Big Three gather in a room, relieved, and Bernanke asks, "They will lend the money out, won't they?" The director, Curtis Hanson, focuses in on Paulson, who gazes out the window, as if contemplating the question for the first time. He insists they will. But an unmistakable moment of doubt passes across his face.
Fade to the postscript. There we learn that, whoops, the banks didn't lend it out after all. Instead, they got bigger, banker bonuses recovered, and Wall Street is getting bottle service at velvet-roped clubs all over again. The world was saved from ruin, but the banks quickly went back to business as usual and even felt self-righteous about it.