Game of Thrones and True Blood may be HBO’s hottest shows this summer, but the network’s making a big investment in a more grounded direction. It has adaptations of Dick Cheney biographyAngler and 2008 election chronicle Game Change in the pipeline, and is gearing up for Veep, a dark comedy series about an overwhelmed female Vice President, which will air next year. In that environment, HBO’s adaptation of Andrew Ross Sorkin’s chronicle of the financial crisis, Too Big To Fail, which premieres on the network at 9 PM tonight, is a test of whether HBO can make excellent movies and shows about the inside business of policy and politics — and whether audiences will tune in to watch them.
If Too Big To Fail is any evidence, they certainly ought to. Most movies about the economic crisis focus on the ordinary Americans who have lost their jobs and homes, whether it’s Drag Me to Hell, about the inadvisability of foreclosing on a powerful gypsy, or The Company Men, a look at masculinity in the wake of corporate downsizing. The main characters in Too Big To Fail are all secure in their fortunes: they might have to downsize to smaller apartments or give up their commutes by helicopter or NetJet, but they’re magnitudes removed from actual desperation. That doesn’t mean that the movie isn’t dramatic — there are a lot of slammed phones, and a scene of Paulson’s staffers listening to him throwing up as yet another deal falls through — but Too Big To Fail can’t rely on the immediate relatable suffering of a family losing its home or parents losing their jobs to engage the audience. It has to stand on the strength of its own writing, simultaneously explaining hugely complex financial and legislative negotiations, while also drawing humor and tension out of them.Most of the time, the movie succeeds. Peter Gould’s slimmed down almost 600 pages of actual text in Andrew Ross Sorkin’s book into 98 minutes, cutting out characters’ biographies, condensing protracted negotiations between Lehman Brothers and potential buyers into single scenes. The movie relies on montages of actual cable reports to provide context, but other than that, and a single scene where Paulson and Jim Wilkinson explain some of the financial instruments involved in the meltdown to Michele Davis to prepare her to brief the press, it mostly trusts the audience to keep up. It’s a risk, but with a small, curated audience like HBO’s, probably a reasonable gamble. The movie doesn’t need to waste time outlining John Thain’s compensation history to make him look avaricious when he complains about possible golden parachute limits during the meetings setting up the Troubled Asset Relief Program.
The movie isn’t afraid to hammer home its politics in moments like that, or in a scene set during Paulson’s trip to China. It begins with a moment of physical comedy when a Chinese official tries to get Paulson to take a miniature Chinese flag. When he won’t accept it, the official hands the flag off to a little girl, who Paulson hustles to get out of the frame. Later, over dinner, another official tells Paulson that the Russians approached the Chinese about dumping their investments in Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac in concert to strike a blow to the American economy. ““The amount of debt your country carries is a terrible vulnerability,” the official demurs, delivering a warning. “We declined, respectfully.”
And the movie is often very funny. Tony Shaloub as John Mack (just one example of the uniformly excellent casting — my favorite may be Dan Hedaya’s brief turn as Barney Frank) grumbles “Here comes goddamn eHarmony,” as Tim Geithner tries to force through mergers. Warren Buffett (Ed Asner) debates with his granddaughters over ice cream at Dairy Queen about whether to take a call from Goldman Sachs CEO Lloyd Blankfein. And Paul Giamatti is marvelously twitchy as Ben Bernanke, needling Treasury Secretary Hank Paulson (William Hurt) so he can’t even get through breakfast.
But ultimately, it’s a tragedy. The movie begins after the government rescue of Bear Stearns, but long after the meltdown had become inevitable. There are no real heroes here: the bankers who assemble to try to save Lehman at the Federal Reserve Bank of New York in a roll call reminiscent of a heist movie are really trying to undo the disaster they are all partially responsible for. And at the end, there’s just Paulson staring out a window, hoping vainly for the best. That optimism is horribly naive, in retrospect. But if all of HBO’s upcoming political projects are this well-designed and -executed, at least we’ll reap some good art from national tragedy, works that sharply articulate the policy and political failures of the last decade.