As a reasonably sentient life form in America, I didn’t need a degree in finance or a job in banking to understand that the country was dealing with a significant crisis. If nothing else, the corporation I was working for, which was downsize-immune for its 50-plus-year history, began deleting from its workforce like embarrassing, drunken Facebook status updates. Apart from the omnipresence of 24-hour cables news and the blogosphere, you’d have to do some pretty heavy-duty not-paying-attention to fail to grasp some of the basic, underlying causes of the financial meltdown.
If that last bit describes you, you’re in luck! HBO has come to the rescue with a star-studded, fictional reenactment of the crisis—a Poseidon Adventure-style dramatization of the decisions, frantic phone calls, and poisonous meetings that led up to the TARP bailout of 2008. It’s an ambitious project, featuring a cast so top-heavy with recognizable thesps of every conceivable pedigree that it rivals the grotesque musical/sword-and-sandals/disaster/biopic/70mm/roadshow monstrosities of Hollywood’s declining period, the kind where the stars fought tooth and nail for the most desirable thumbnail portrait on the inevitable clamshell VHS release. Directed by Oscar-winner Curtis Hanson, and written by Peter Gould, positively aglow from his role in producing and co-writing the triumphant AMC series Breaking Bad, based on the book by Andrew Ross Sorkin, this isn’t TV, ladies and gentlemen, it’s HBO—by now the most pretentious and approval-jonesing stop on your cable dial, sometimes deserving of the tremendous acclaim it pursues, sometimes not.
Is our response to such vast, transparent larceny and corruption not to demand the arrest and conviction of the responsible (and the complicit) parties, but to accept an analysis that amounts to bland interpretive dance by a throng of Golden Globe nominees and Oscar winners in community-theater makeup? If it was made with an ounce of style, we might have had something like a Lola Montès spectacle, a meta-heavy commentary on the symbiotic relationship between life and its theatrical reiteration, complete with the climactic swan dive. Regrettably, Hanson directs with a tone of cold sobriety, lunging for every shot/reverse shot opportunity in the script, making every effort to overlook the sideshow spectacle of funny voices and false beards and wigs (come on, tell me it’s not funny that already-bald Evan Handler is forced to wear a bald cap to play Lloyd Blankfein), but what emerges is a sense of malnourished exasperation, the unfortunate result not of the makers’ inability to locate a dramatic arc in the events, but the folly of anyone who thought that conventional dramatic scripting was the best way to go about making sense of the debacle.
Scraps of substance emerge relatively free of compromise. Billy Crudup and William Hurt don’t exactly hack out new terrain, but their charisma is enough to grant their scenes sufficient heft and forward momentum; in particular, Crudup, as Geithner, does a man’s day of work finding countless ways to Not Fucking Believe This Fucking Shit as he goes fetal behind his desk and behind his phone. And Paul Giamatti-plus-beard looks like a holographic recreation of Ben Bernanke and practically walks off with the whole show with his 60-second speech on the Great Depression.
It may simply be that such enormous crimes are beyond the grasp of a proper accounting, dramatic or factual, and that the only way to adequately address the events of 2007 - 2010 may be with, I don’t know, pornographic street theater involving bestiality and spectators being sexually assaulted and robbed by heroin pushers in $5,000 suits, while government officials, played by actual government officials, stare very intently at a spot on the sidewalk between their shoes. Maybe that would help us make sense of things. Maybe it wouldn’t. Maybe it’s the role of art to try to comprehend disaster, but also its fate to fail.
It’s not a strike against the film, however, that it fails. It’s a strike against the film that a tiresome connect-the-dots summary of the major players and events is propped up with half-hearted attempts at suspense and ticking clocks and breathlessly watched congressional vote coverage, and rote scenes of actors barking into phones and delivering lines that writer Peter Gould probably wishes he got from the other Sorkin (more than one scene betrays Social Network aspirations). In attempting to make Flightplan out of C-SPAN, the film is clogged with exposition and explanation, paradoxically belittling a story that’s too big for any single telling. The screen is busy with title cards indicating who’s who as actors walk on and make no impact whatsoever as they wag their chins a little before walking off. This could have been a Zodiac-like tale of minutiae and dust and finding patterns inscribed in the chaos. But no. It has to be the same tired run around the block where a handful of do-gooders Recognize What They Have to Do and, Against Overwhelming Odds, Get It Done.
You know you’re in trouble when you’re watching a film and, in real time, in your mind’s eye, you’re watching some alternate film that’s much better—more daring, more fun, more something, but most importantly, a different film. The Too Big to Fail that played in my head had essentially the same content, except Hanson and his writer had jettisoned the false drama and just shot the transactions and the votes and the deals, with close-ups of every material representation of greed (phones, computers, cars, massive houses, suits, disgusting wives, monogrammed pajamas, reams of compliance documents) completely devoid of suspense or “human interest” (let’s face it, there was no human interest in any of this shit) while the guest stars recited their dialogue in the background, mere gutless puppets to their own self-preservation and compensation. That would have been something. Maybe weird, maybe lousy, but something. It would have been the “not TV” we are continually promised. What we got instead was a very long episode of Lie to Me.