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Review: Too Big to Fail (2011)

Too Big to Fail (2011)

Directed by: Curtis Hanson

Premise: Based on the nonfiction book by Andrew Ross Sorkin. A drama about the 2008 financial meltdown. Treasury Secretary Hank Paulson (William Hurt) attempts to stave off an economic collapse while negotiating with congress and the major investment banks.

What Works: Over the last few years HBO has produced movies ripped from the headlines and turned major cultural events into very entertaining feature films. The network has paid close attention to politics with titles like Recount and Game Change. Based on the nonfiction book by Andrew Ross Sorkin, Too Big to Fail dramatizes the 2008 financial collapse that kicked off the Great Recession. The economic breakdown had several causes and actually took place over a few years but the filmmakers smartly focus on a few weeks in the fall of 2008 when Lehman Brothers and AIG began to fail. Their demise set off a chain reaction that threatened to implode the global economy. The value of Too Big to Fail is the way it neatly summarizes what happened in those critical weeks. The film unfolds like a thriller and the stakes of the crisis are palatable. The purpose of dramatizing events like this, as opposed to making a documentary, is to showcase the human aspect. That’s done well in Too Big to Fail. This is a movie about crisis and denial. Treasury Secretary Hank Paulson and his inner circle grasp what is happening but their ideology keeps them looking for free market solutions. Meanwhile, the major banks are insistent of their value even as their worthlessness becomes increasingly obvious. The story of Too Big to Fail focuses on Paulson as he guides the banks through the crisis while also navigating Congress during an election season. To their credit, the filmmakers do not give themselves over to Hollywood fantasies of one man swooping in to heroically save the day. Rather, Paulson and his team do what they believe to be in the best interest of the country but they are compromised by their own ideologies and by the power structure of Washington and Wall Street. As Hank Paulson, actor William Hurt showcases that tension and it’s evident underneath his performance.

What Doesn’t: Among the factors leading up to the 2008 economic collapse was a phenomenon known as cognitive capture among the business press and the government agencies tasked with regulating financial industries. Put simply, the journalists and government regulators were so close to the people and institutions they were observing that they lost perspective. They saw the world and the economy the same way that the bankers did and could not see the crisis growing in front of them. That concept of cognitive capture applies to many of the movies of recession cinema and especially Too Big to Fail. The effects of the 2008 collapse cascaded from the richest Wall Street bankers to the very poorest members of society but Too Big to Fail and films like it focus exclusively on people who are part of the economic and political elite. The film has a blind spot for the way the collapse was experienced by the everyday citizen and how vocally the public opposed the bailout. The film also posits that the bailout was the only option. Like the journalists and regulators, the filmmakers of Too Big to Fail portray these events within the parameters defined by the economic and political elites who created the problem. The film doesn’t demonstrate the independence or creativity to think about these events from a different perspective.  

DVD extras: Featurettes.

Bottom Line: Too Big to Fail summarizes the 2008 financial collapse and the subsequent bank bailout in a way that is entertaining and makes a complex topic accessible to a mass audience. Because of its conception, the film is limited in what it presents and Too Big to Fail would be best seen in companion with the documentary Inside Job.

Episode: #716 (September 16, 2018)