Paul Giamatti and William Hurt as Ben Bernanke and Henry Paulson, Too Big to Fail, HBO, 2011

From The Paris Review:

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.”

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 Big Fail”, Moe Tkacik, The Paris Review