Too Big To Fail

Year: 2011
Production Co: Deuce Three Productions
Studio: HBO
Director: Curtis Hanson
Writer: Peter Gould/Andrew Ross Sorkin
Cast: William Hurt, Billy Crudup, James Wood, Bill Pullman, Topher Grace, Cynthia Nixon, Ed Asner, Paul Giamatti, Tony Shalhoub, Matthew Modine, Dan Hedaya

Sometimes there's nothing I love more than a movie where a character walks into a boardroom or executive office suite and a title card appears in a clean, Roman gothic font at the bottom identifying them as a real-life figure that I recognise.

If you've never been a particularly committed history buff, the power of the movies to make you one always amazes me. You just have to keep in mind that the story is one writer/producer/creative camp's version of events. But when it's done well - like it is here - it's very hard not to believe you're a fly on the wall of some unfolding event we now know made history. It's the approach that made In The Loop seem real, however funny it was.

In this case the history being written is the cascading domino effect of the US economy tanking in 2008. Going from the corridors of power in the Federal Treasury to the offices of the big American bank CEOs to Warren Buffet (Ed Asner) and back again, we watch the castle start to crumble at Lehmann Brothers, where CEO Richard Fuld (James Woods) is fighting – and losing – to stave off bankruptcy.

If Lehmann goes, it's going to drag a lot of other businesses down with it because of the inter-tangled web of exposure every financial body has to everyone else's risk. In the case of the GFC we now understand it turned out to be mortgages sold to Middle Americans who couldn't afford them, but it can be anything.

Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson (William Hurt) sees the calamity that's going to befall them all if Lehmann fails. Before long he and his staff are calling and meeting with the CEOs of the biggest banks in the world in boardrooms across New York, trying to come up with a plan to stem the bleeding.

Of course, the plan is to give billions of dollars of public money to the already obscenely rich private baking system, and the whole way through you wonder if director Curtis Hanson and the script are taking a uniquely right wing tack. It portrays Paulson and his people as the diplomatic, dogged heroes racing against the clock to put together a desperate fix.

It's Paulson who goes to Congress to ask for the payouts, and after failing the first time the film seems to be portraying the second attempt as the climactic sigh of relief when the heroes come through. It's only a final title card that seems to acknowledge what Michael Moore, armies of liberal commentators and the entire working class realise – most of the money when to executive bonuses, everyone else lost their jobs and the world economy was decimated for the next five years anyway.

It's always a pleasure to see actors who look enough like their subjects to add to the sense you're watching real life – it's the reason I liked Oliver Stone's W when almost nobody else did. And just like in Margin Call, Too Big To Fail doesn't get tied up in knots trying to explain the ins and outs of the financial system – it's not only impenetrable, good directors know most audiences will be bored stiff by it.

But somehow, both the script (based on the book by the screenwriters) and Hanson's direction make it all feel like a Roland Emmerich disaster movie with credit default swaps instead of a giant wave or asteroid. It might be the same benefit of hindsight in knowing how the story ends that made United 93 so sickening to watch, but there's a disquieting sense of impending doom.

It's never easy to portray people wearing suits talking in offices cinematically, but after proving himself in so many genres he should be working way more often, Hanson (8 Mile, In Her Shoes, LA Confidential) makes politics and big business more exciting than I've seen since Oliver Stone did it in Nixon.

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