“Too Big to Fail” humanizes Henry Paulson for better or worse

There have now been many films on the epic economic collapse of 2008 as the struggles reverberating from it are still omnipresent. “The Big Short” focuses on the investors who saw it coming. “Margin Call” shows us the conscience of the higher ups dealing with the event in real time. Documentaries such as “Inside Job” examine how the collapse occurred. “Too Big to Fail” moves the narrative focus to Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson and, for better or worse, dramatizes him as a savior of sorts on the frontlines.

Directed by Curtis Hanson and written by Peter Gould off Andrew Ross Sorkin’s book, the film follows the cascading dominoes of Bear Stearns, Lehman Brothers, Fannie Mae, Freddie Mac and on and on. Secretary Paulson (William Hurt) takes desperate measures that test the separation of state and independent business while also dealing with his own conscience for his contribution in slashing regulations that could have prevented risky investments. His staff pulls out all the measures they can to ensure that the infamous Wall Street bailout goes through.

In difference to other perspectives on the crisis, Hanson’s film displays the perpetrators as unknowing participants in the collapse. The resulting downturn in the market is as much a surprise to them as it was to us. For many, that is inherently problematic. The approach sympathizes pretty much everyone in the film to some extent, but it also undercuts the film’s credibility as it feels fake in the sense that “your boss actually cares about you” kind of rhetoric. Paulson himself can easily be villified in the correct context. Is he genuinely concerned about the ordinary person caught in the crosshairs of a climactic collapse? Or is he just trying to save his old friends from Wall Street with no discernible path other than a public bailout? The film certainly has one interpretation, but you may have another.

Much more in line with public perception is the constant distrust between the heads of the big banks and how they will attempt to screw each other even in the face of worldwide calamity. Paulson attempting to herd the CEOs together and keep the ship afloat is riveting action. The film employs a classic structure of escalating action testing the character’s mettle ending with a take it or leave it final plot point. The eerie last shot of the film is a haunting reminder of the price of power in the hands of the wrong people.

Whether the film is accurate or not, the action of the film is exciting in a talky sort of way. The buildup really makes you wonder just how close the entire world was to a much more catastrophic result.

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