In HBO's "Too Big to Fail," the Heroes Are Really Zeroes
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HBO's "Too Big To Fail"—I just caught up with it last night; thank you, HBO On Demand—is extraordinarily revealing about the financial crisis. Only its revelations are almost entirely inadvertent.
The movie is set up in the Hollywood conventional way: A gang of misfits, each with a special expertise, is brought together for an impossible mission. There's Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson, steely eyed at the moment of truth. There's New York Federal Reserve head Timothy Geithner, the athlete (he doesn't just jog, but also plays what appears to be squash). And then there's Federal Reserve chairman Ben Bernanke, the professor with a heart of gold and secret knowledge of the Great Depression.
Ostensibly it's a story of their success against all odds. Michael Kinsley, reviewing the movie in the New York Times, labeled Hank Paulson the "hero" of the account.
Except that the movie actually depicts something entirely different: failure upon failure. "Too Big To Fail" The Movie isn't the story of how the Three Musketeers saved the global economy. It's a story of how the three didn't see the financial crisis coming; hadn't prepared for it; made mistake after mistake as it was cresting; and then, in their moment of triumph, made their most colossal blunder of all.
That, it turns out (whether or not "Too Big To Fail" knows it), is the true story of the financial crisis.
How much did Curtis Hanson and the writers mean for that to be the story? Throughout, the characters drop hints about their missteps, but the plot unfolds like a financial "Die Hard," with our intrepid heroes battling fiendishly powerful forces toward a happy ending. (Full disclosure in this era of transparency: I write a regular column for DealBook, the New York Times section edited by Andrew Ross Sorkin, the reporter upon whose book the movie was based.)
Early on, Paulson complains to his staff that they have been behind on everything as the crisis began to emerge. And that's true! The crisis actually started in the late summer of 2007 . Paulson's first effort, late that year, was to get a bunch of banks to assemble a giant off-balance-sheet concoction that would save each individual bank's off-balance-sheet monstrosity. It was a complete flop.
In the movie, as bankers and government officials frantically try to save Lehman, Chris Flowers, the private equity investor and banking impresario, is depicted as informing Paulson and Geithner that AIG is teetering on the edge. In their fumbled response, he immediately grasps the truth. "They're not on top of it," he tells a confederate.
And they weren't. In real life, AIG had been struggling since the middle of 2007. Paulson and Geithner of course had some inkling of the problems at the world's largest insurer. But they didn't prepare for it.
In the movie, the chief executive of General Electric, Jeff Immelt, places a terrified call to Paulson saying that GE can't borrow. GE is standing in for every Real American manufacturing company. We are reminded it makes light bulbs and washing machines. Paulson is shocked that such a stalwart could be having trouble borrowing.
The reality, of course, is that GE was more a finance company than a manufacturer and was teetering because it financed those operations with billions of short-term borrowing. It is also true that Paulson, Bernanke and Geithner had no inkling of GE's troubles until the very last moment and therefore had no plan to deal with it.
Plans are, in the movie, almost nonexistent. The team of heroes races from crisis to crisis, as Bond goes from chase scene to babe, eventually stumbling on the evil SPECTRE plot to take over the world. Intentionally or not, the movie is echoing real life.