Too Big to Fail, Sky Atlantic, review
Too Big to Fail, Sky Atlantic's big-budget credit crunch film, is flawed a drama but a fine documentary, says Ed Cumming.
In the week that the British Government announced its plans for drastic overhauls of banking regulation, Too Big to Fail (Sky Atlantic) was a reminder of how we got into this mess in the first place. An adaptation of Andrew Ross Sorkin's book of the same name, the film dramatised the weeks surrounding the collapse of Lehmann Brothers in September 2008, through the eyes of the bankers and lawmakers scrambling to save the day.
A financial correspondent for the New York Times, Sorkin had unrivalled access during those fraught days, and his nuanced understanding of the characters survived the transfer to the screem. Lehmann CEO Dick Fuld was nicknamed the "Gorilla", but James Woods played him convincingly as more of a wounded bear, dying but still dangerous. Hank Paulson, the US Treasury Secretary and chief architect of the rescue, was given pragmatic steel by William Hurt.
As they shouted at each other behind thick boardroom doors, the moneymen reminded us that for all the hatred they have received since, they represented (and in many ways still do) the sharp end of capitalist achievement: smart, fast and utterly ruthless, gambling with the fortunes of a nation. We already knew how the story would end, of course. In hindsight it is easy to feel that the near-trillion dollar bail-out was the only option open, but the film showed clearly that this was far from the case at the time.
As a documentary, Too Big to Fail was excellent, with credible performances, a taut script and the expected HBO varnish. As a drama, its flaw was that for all the alpha male hubris on display, there was no redemptive suffering. Aside from grievous loss of face and a few redundancies, at the end of it all the main characters were still a group of multi-millionaires who'd tried their hardest. The collective crisis was too big for anyone to take responsibility for, and too big – ultimately – to convey truly on the small screen. The crash's real victims were the taxpayers, forced to prop up an industry which knew the prices of everything but not their worth. They were everywhere, but invisible.