The Big Fail


On Film

We’re out this week, but we’re re-posting some of our favorite pieces from 2011 while we’re away. We hope you enjoy—and have a happy New Year!

Billy Crudup as Tim Geithner in Too Big to Fail.

Something unnerving happened to me about an hour into Too Big To Fail, during a scene in which the actor who plays Tim Geithner pauses an early morning jog around Lower Manhattan on September 17 to call Hank Paulson.

“I’m on the street, Hank,” he says, accurately, as commuters climb the stairs of the 2/3 train. “And people … are just on the street going about their business …”

Around this line I began crying uncontrollably, for no apparent reason.

It occurred to me that the fall of 2008 had been a heavy quarter for crying for me, especially considering its notable lack of any consequential breakups. I tried to remember triggers: Pnin; a decades-old magazine feature about Barney Frank’s decision to out himself; the now forgotten series of announcements that some lifelong Republican had “courageously” endorsed Obama; watching Rachel Getting Married; and most subway musicians, in particular the sad old Chinese men stationed at the Grand Street stop, condemned to civilization’s most tragic musical genre.

I replayed the scene, and … oh my God, it could not be more obvious: I had been moved to tears by Too Big to Fail because it was just that unbelievably bad!

This is not to attest that it was not additionally believably bad, or it would never have pulled off such a triumphant assault on my dignity.

I mean, of course it is bad. It is a ninety-two-minute movie based on a six-hundred-page book I finished in a day and a half, but one I cannot imagine picking up if I had not already known at least seventy-five of the one-hundred-and-fifty-long cast of characters. The Wall Street Journal subscriber was the target audience, but Journal subscribers do not write screenplays. It was designed to fail in the way of those productions that force actors to work a Wikipedia entry into every scene so that the next generation of high school teachers might feel justified in dimming the lights and letting the class watch in installments, to the amusement of all who had the foresight to smoke up in the parking lot before class.

By some quirk of neurocircuitry, I cannot smoke weed. Its effect on me is generally the drastic magnification of my capacity for perceiving all that is phony and insidious and demoralizing about existence, which is akin to what I experienced watching this scene, only for the reason that it bore no actual resemblance to existence. In the tradition of high school, this movie is a sustained campaign of mockery directed at anyone who ever bothered knowing about anything.

For instance, here’s what Tim tells Hank, in a line I missed the first time because I was crying:

They have no idea the whole thing is about to fall down!

Um, thought experiment! Imagine Tim Geithner, or Billy Crudup as Tim Geithner, or anyone at all uttering this comment on September 11 while surveying the scene at Ground Zero around lunch hour. We have just watched as twin towers—in this case, Lehman Brothers and AIG—have fallen, and yet here we are meant to believe that Joe Six-Pack loitering outside has “no idea the whole thing is about to fall down!” This could happen in a 9/11 movie, if the guy delivering the line had been staring at Building 7 the whole time and the movie was a satire of 9/11 truthers. But it couldn’t happen in this case without a shocking degree of contempt for the actual truth, and for America and all the neighborhood food vendors who posted signs on their carts rebuking reporters for badgering their stressed-out customers with Lehman-related questions that week.

So much about Too Big to Fail is small and shoddy that the magnitude of its contempt goes almost unnoticed. But prior to the week of September 15, 2008, the last time an educated observer could have realistically believed that the average bystander going about business in the financial district had no idea it was all about to come crashing down had been sometime around or before August 3, 2007, when the inimitable CNBC personality Jim Cramer diverted from his usual unscripted eccentricities to deliver a terrifying and detailed live sermon despairing that the Federal Reserve appeared to have “NO IDEA” what sort of unspeakable terror had stricken credit markets since the predatory mortgage dreck lurking within Wall Street’s innumerable “shadow banks” had finally begun to default en masse. The network replayed Cramer’s operatic declarations that Ben Bernanke and Tim Geithner “know NOTHING!” and had “NO IDEA!” so assaultively throughout the ensuing year that everyone got around to turning the sound on.


But the fiction of pervasive cluelessness is so vital to this movie’s very essence that the CNBC clips interspersed between scenes as a narrative device had to be “reread and, in some cases, reshot”—faked is another way of saying it—by some of Cramer’s calmer/comelier colleagues two years after the fact, on an HBO set designed to look more like that of The View or Reliable Sources than anything on CNBC. Freed from the sweaty, disheveled realities of the moment, Maria Bartiromo looks as if she’s aged herself back to the days of Glass-Steagall.

By far the most improved from this outlandish orgy of image laundering, however, are the former Treasury flacks Michele Davis and Jim Wilkinson, bit players whose reality-based liabilities (ignorance, naivete bordering on recklessness) are confidently converted by Cynthia Nixon and Topher Grace into the ultimate Hollywood asset that is “just like us!” affability. Both actors were gracious enough to meet their subjects. Asked by New York whether Davis seemed concerned about her portrayal, Nixon laughed, “Yeah, I mean, as you can tell from the film, a lot of what she does is spin.” Throughout the course of the movie, though, the straight-shooting Wilkinson can generally be trusted to talk the bosses off any ledge over which the spinplications would be too dire—namely nationalization, the n word, an “un-American” course of action akin to handing the financial system over (in one of the many lines that gave Andrew Breitbart’s movie critic a serious man crush on the Topher Grace character) to the “Post office—and that runs like a dream.”

Paul Giamatti as Ben Bernanke.

Meanwhile, across the river in Arlington, the real-life bureaucrat Sheila Bair was plotting the largest bank nationalization in history, using the Depression-era powers of the FDIC to shut down Washington Mutual and sell its assets to the highest bidder. In the ultimate triumph of spin, neither Bair nor the FDIC nor any other genuine vestige of lessons America learned from the Depression are given a role in Too Big to Fail. Instead, the movie concludes by solemnly crediting Paulson, Geithner, and Bernanke for averting a second Great Depression. The evidence supporting this conclusion consists mainly of a scene in which Paul Giamatti as Bernanke asserts his expertise on the Great Depression in the same tone of withering condescension with which he so unforgettably slandered “fucking merlot” in the movie Sideways, which famously boosted American pinot noir sales by 16 percent. In an ongoing national tragedy, however, Bernanke’s entire manual of Depression-aversion techniques originated with one of the twentieth century’s epic promulgators of spin, Milton Friedman, whose “monetarist” prescription for staving off the next Depression was transparently aimed at staving off the next New Deal. But sometimes there seems no quantity of free money large enough for the job, a dilemma Bernanke and Paulson discuss in a final, heroically wooden scene following a meeting with bankers to discuss the terms of the latest bailout:

BB: I certainly hope they …
HP: What.
BB: I … hope they use the money the way we’re asking them … they will lend it out, won’t they?
HP: (grins) Of course they will!!
Then, turning to look out the window into the distance, in a voice closer to a whisper
Of course they will …

There are moments at which this movie approaches a kind of beauty in its bargain-bin cheesiness, in a way that recalls some of the schlockier nonsense peddled by the Bush Administration—“Mission Accomplished,” Iraqis dancing in the streets, Jessica Lynch …

The nightmare for Jessica Lynch, according to Jessica Lynch, truly began after she was “rescued” from the Saddam Hospital in Nasariya, Iraq, where she had been recovering from injuries sustained during a raid in which her gun jammed. Lynch was under the supervision and care of gentle and humane doctors and singing nurses. Once rescued and tucked away in Walter Reed, she was inundated with gifts and lucrative offers to exploit the gruesome true story of the rape and torture she endured in an Iraqi gulag after killing untold numbers of terrorists in an action-packed gunfight. She later described to the author Susan Faludi the process by which her ghostwriter Rick Bragg “wore [her] down” in his effort to force the rape lie into her “authorized” biography by insisting repeatedly that such a thing could have happened when she was unconscious, that her injuries were “consistent” with those of a rape victim, that “people need to know” the perils of being a “woman soldier.” In 2007 Lynch testified before Congress that in truth she possessed none of the valor or victimhood of the Jessica Lynch invention investigators had traced to none other than Jim Wilkinson—who failed to recall any of the details of his creative process in the specific incidence—but added that “the truth of war is not always easy to hear but it is always more heroic than the hype.” Isn’t it pretty to think so.

Well, America, Too Big to Fail is your Jessica Lynch story. Remember her brown-skinned best friend who was captured in the same ambush but completely forgotten by the monomaniacal missing white girl–centric media? If Jessica represents Tim and Jim and Ben and all the artificial heroes being celebrated in Too Big to Fail, then the friend represents the millions of anonymous homeowners fending off illegal evictions carried out by criminal rings of notary sweatshops churning out falsified documents to replace the ones mysteriously lost by the too-big-to-fail banks. Without them to exploit, who would fight our wars or sign up with adjustable-rate NINJA mortgages? It’s a central question … for Howard Zinn maybe, but this is Hollywood, where the target market is still middle American, white, and inexplicably disdainful of the postal service. In Too Big to Fail the hidden master propagandist is Milton Friedman, and Jim Wilkinson is one in a platoon of artificial heroes who are paid to make us forget what we know and repress what just happened.

Cynthia Nixon as Michele Davis.

The last time I cried in a movie for a reason other than psychological torture was during Michael Moore’s Capitalism: A Love Story. I saw it with an ex-boyfriend who was sure he detected an undercurrent of anti-Semitic propaganda, which is just another reminder that the most effective marketing campaign in history was the one that convinced everyone they were smart enough to see through it when someone was trying to sell them on something. I won’t go into the general problem of titular liberals who reflexively recoil at the mere mention of Michael Moore other than to venture that they are mostly afraid of the fact that he is fat. Like Cynthia Nixon, an ardent Democrat who nevertheless attests to having been thoroughly won over by Michele Davis—“I liked her so much, and I agree with so many things that she said. It was kind of a reminder to me that the loudest parts of the Republican party are really who we hear from … it doesn’t mean that they’re blind to common sense or human rights”—they are drawn to identifying with people who do not strike them as physically repulsive, even if, as in the case of both Davis and Jim Wilkinson, they are people who launched their political careers working for Dick Armey, the former Republican majority leader who helms FreedomWorks, the most prominent of the innumerable Tea Party propaganda outfits (and whose precursor, Citizens for a Sound Economy, employed Davis in the early nineties). This is why effective liars are usually attractive and thin. If this is your problem, though, you are in luck. No one in Too Big to Fail is fat, not even Barney Frank.

Moe Tkacik, formerly of the Wall Street Journal and Jezebel, is a writer in Washington, D.C. Her essay on television and the financial crisis, “The Real Housewives of CNBC,” appears in Bad News.