Is “Too Big to Fail” Too Light on Blame?

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“Too Big to Fail,” the HBO film based on Andrew Ross Sorkin’s book that premiers tonight, has its moments. For a story that’s already been hashed out in countless books, magazines, and documentaries, HBO’s rendition of the Wall Street meltdown still manages to feel fresh, entertaining, and even educational. But does it get to the point?

The docu-drama offers a clear and concise play-by-play of the complex events that brought down Bear Stearns, Lehman Brothers, and AIG. And that’s a great public service, since those are not easy events to grasp or remember. As Michael Kinsley put it in the New York Times, “I’ve never come closer than the two minutes after watching “Too Big to Fail” to understanding what a ‘credit default swap’ is.” The feeling of “I get it!” is reason enough to give the movie a pass.

But beyond nailing down the crisis logistics, what the viewer ultimately wants is some insight on who’s to blame. And that’s something “Too Big to Fail” does its best to avoid. Treasury Secretary Hank Paulson (played by William Hurt) is mild-mannered, sharp-witted, and fair. Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke (played by Paul Giamatti) is a soft-spoken backseat sage. And even Goldman Sachs’ CEO Lloyd Blankfein (played by Evan Handler) is deemed a “superstar” who appears cooperative and cool-headed at every turn.

Aside from a slightly irritable John Thain from Merrill Lynch (played by Matthew Modine) and an understandably cranky Dick Fuld (played by James Woods), there aren’t any villains in the mix. The bankers are at worst self-satisfied, while the government falls somewhere between pitifully overwhelmed and plainly naive. The result is a story without much added grit, which leaves a slew of deeper questions laid to waste.

In an interview about the flick, Ross Sorkin shed some light on his own perceptions of blame: “Who do we blame for not changing the system for the next time, for the next “Too Big to Fail”…That is the administration today. That is a group of people who have not made all of the real decisions that need to be made.” To some degree, those sentiments finally come across in the closing scene, when Bernanke and Paulson are left wondering what banks will do with their TARP injections without caps on pay or any other restrictions on capital.

But there are even bigger issues “Too Big to Fail” leaves unchallenged, like what’s wrong with a tight circle of people flowing between banks and government? And why has the Fed been so absent in regulating banks? For Ross Sorkin, who has been criticized for his cozy relationship to sources, these questions may already seem answered, or perhaps not worth the time. But the American public still feels in the dark.