One of my favorite sort of review is one in which an expert, rather than a TV or film critic, reviews a TV show or film on his area of expertise. Years ago, one of my most enjoyable writing experiences was watching a show on The History Channel alongside the eminent Jesuit historian John W. O'Malley, and hear him comment from time to time, "Well, that never happened," or words to that effect. (The article, as they say, wrote itself.) So when I received news of HBO's new drama on the economic meltdown of 2008, based on Andrew Ross Sorkin's book Too Big to Fail, I knew we needed an expert reviewer. (The film, of the same name, airs Sunday evening.) So here you go: Charles Wilber is emeritus professor of economics and a fellow at the Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies at the University of Notre Dame in South Bend, Ind., and frequent contributor to America. He's one of the clearest of all economic writers (saith I as a former Econ major). In this online Culture piece, just posted, he gives high marks to the drama, which is based on one of the most dramatic periods in recent history.
I am an economist, not a film critic, so I will not say much about HBO’s “Too Big to Fail” as an example of film making. My reviewing process: I watched the film with my wife and we then discussed it.
The film is a cross between a mystery drama and a documentary. HBO went all out and cast big-name stars: William Hurt stars as Treasury Secretary Paulson, Ed Asner as Warren Buffet, Billy Crudup as New York Federal Reserve President Timothy Geithner, Paul Giamatti as Chairman of the Federal Reserve Ben Bernanke, Kathy Baker as Paulson's wife, Wendy, and one of my favorite actors, James Woods, as Richard Fuld, chairman and CEO of Lehman Brothers, whose filing for bankruptcy in September 2008 set off shockwaves of fear that the entire financial system was about to implode.
To emphasize the film as a drama the producers focus on Secretary Paulson and his personal interaction with the other characters—Bernanke, Geithner, assorted bank presidents and other financial movers and shakers. The film's perspective is that the financial sector caused the crisis and then was called upon to fix it. They did, but at a high cost. The collapse into a full-scale depression was avoided, but the banks got even bigger through forced mergers; later, the banks sat on the capital infused by the government, and executive bonuses returned to their pre-crisis level.
As a viewer I enjoyed the film, and the dramatization brought the crisis to life. My wife and I both think that unless you already know quite a bit about financial operations you will get lost in the complicated events and obscure terms and perhaps not understand what caused the crisis and how the various players went about containing it. At one point in the film, a public statement needs to be made and after one aid spouts out a jargon-filled explanation of the looming crisis another yells "It’s got to be in English."
I am not sure whether the filmmakers have got all the details correct. I am not an expert on the inner workings of the financial system or of what went on in the Secretary of the Treasury's office at that time. However, it "feels" right. In other words, yes, this is how it could have played out.
Let me share some reflections and reactions on watching the film twice.