The Financial Crisis in the Movies

James Woods As Dick Fuld

The 2008 (and ongoing) financial crisis has found its way from Wall Street to the silver screen in the form of the excellent HBO movie Too Big to Fail, and in the compelling documentary, Inside Job.

For most people in banking, the events surrounding the bankruptcy of Lehman Brothers and the related financial crisis are still very fresh in memory. Most finance professionals also don't need much explaining about what went wrong, but nevertheless, the inside stories of what EXACTLY went wrong and how the crisis was handled is a thrilling subject in its own right.

Hollywood has picked up this topic from two different angles in the HBO movie Too Big to Fail, which is based on Sorkin's book of the same name, and the documentary, Inside Job. The latter highlights how politics and Wall Street are intricately intertwined, and raises more than a few questions of how the crisis was dealt with. Whilst fundamentally different in their approach, the former being a "proper movie" featuring a large cast of well-known actors and the latter being a documentary, both do go a long way to trying to explain in simple terms how the financial system ended up on the brink.

Too Big to Fail is essentially a thriller, chronicling the demise of Lehman. It focuses on Treasury Secretary Hank Paulson (William Hurt), who is dealing with everyone on Wall Street and trying to coordinate efforts to keep the banking world alive. The story is interesting enough to excuse the sometimes heavy-handed exposition (for instance when the press secretary, the only woman in the room, gets told how the mortgage market imploded) and the cast across the board is terrific. The characterisation of the various bankers is sometimes amusing, like Jamie Dimon, played by Bill Pullman, being the charmer, and Dick Fuld, played by James Woods, the constantly swearing ignorant. (This is an HBO movie after all.) But it does not prevent the viewer being sucked into the events unfolding.

The fact the story is largely true - although one is never sure what happened behind closed doors - makes viewing even more compelling. And the ending, where Hank Paulson is convinced that banks will start lending each other money again, is all the more poignant knowing that three years later, banks have learned very little from the crisis.

Whilst Too Big to Fail tries to merely to tell a story, the documentary Inside Job takes sides trying to uncover connections between politics and Wall Street, and pointing out who gained what from the crisis. Whilst it is a well-made documentary (though occasionally a bit long), I couldn't help but let the cynic in me wonder what was so new about hearing that Wall Street and Washington are largely in bed with one another. I do take the point, though, that the evidence was well-researched and put together coherently and convincingly. It doesn't try to be neutral, and is most definitely not, which sometimes diminishes the pleasure of learning how several high-profile personalities were paid for recommending the Islandic banking sector to the world. It is interesting to watch, nonetheless.

If I hadn't watched Too Big to Fail first, I probably would have enjoyed Inside Job a little more, since there is a fair bit of overlap between them - after all, they all have to explain how the world collapsed. If you are in the mood for a gripping thriller, the former might be your pick, whereas the more politically minded will probably enjoy the latter more.

Both of them make for compelling viewing, and remind us that not too long ago we were experiencing events that shook the world to its core. Most probably it won't be long before we see Too Big To Fail 2: The Sovereigns.