HBO’s ‘Too Big to Fail’ and the politics of portrayal
By Ned Martel,
NEW YORK — Last fall, Hank Paulson entered an HBO conference room to meet his match: William Hurt.
“The initial meeting was a good meeting,” Hurt recalled of the session between the former Treasury secretary and the actor assigned to play him in “Too Big to Fail,” a televised retelling of the 2008 financial crisis.
The stakes of the Hurt-Paulson confab were high, and each man was sizing up the other. Hurt didn’t want to be rolled, and Paulson didn’t want his image debased.
“It’s obviously frightening for people to be portrayed,” Hurt said. It was also evident that the former Cabinet officer, who had written his own account of the crisis, had a message to impart: “He has a theme — a passionate theme — about quality, excellence. I think he cares about the country.”
Hurt said he enjoyed the back-and-forth and found Paulson to be fully prepared for this and subsequent sessions. (Paulson declined to be interviewed for this article, but a spokeswoman confirmed that the meetings took place.)
The actor pointedly asked the ex-Cabinet secretary how he could have served as the Bush administration’s financial overseer after having made enormous sums as CEO of an investment bank that had no small role in the 2008 credit crisis that nearly drove the economy into financial Armageddon. But they also found common ground: Both men, as it turns out, enjoy birding.
Though reporters and authors and even Paulson have already chronicled the capital infusion that saved the equity markets, this TV movie will give five million viewers (if opening-night numbers for similar projects are a guide) a backdoor look at the days not too long ago when huge banks were being bought and sold in hasty, government-coaxed deals.
For many Americans, Andrew Ross Sorkin’s nonfiction bestseller “Too Big to Fail” was too big to read, which means, if you’re a newsmaker trying to influence history, it’s worth remembering that history is not only being written, it’s also being produced.
And as the Washington verite genre grows — with everything from “Charlie Wilson’s War” to “Frost/Nixon” to “Fair Game” to HBO’s “The Special Relationship” — political players are using their media savvy to advance their version of events while the facts are being reassembled.
In “Too Big to Fail,” the spinning took place everywhere. Over lunch. In car trips between appointments. Even by trading drafts of scripts. Each time was an opportunity, however small, to refashion history.
Paulson even invited Hurt to vacation with him over three days on a coastal Georgia island. Paulson’s wife, Wendy, led Hurt on a 5 a.m. kayak trip, and the actor noted that had he been late, the strong-willed spouse — played by Kathy Baker in the movie — would have left him behind. Paulson pointed out hawks, egrets and spoonbills, as well as snakes and alligators. Paulson caught and released snapper in a creek and then regaled his guest with natural-history insights over dinner in a rustic lodge.
All the while, Hurt kept up his questioning about regulators and profiteers, divining what Paulson learned on the Dartmouth gridiron and in the political arena. And they even acknowledged that Paulson’s legacy could be shaped by the collaboration’s outcome. “As my son says, ‘Let the haters hate,’ ” Hurt said. “I didn’t feel manipulated. I analyzed his life against my criteria. My notions of value can be pretty strict.”
The actors of “Too Big to Fail” gathered last Monday in the Pool Room of the Four Seasons restaurant in midtown Manhattan. There was a large replica of the financial district’s Charging Bull statue, atop a heap of fake money. Familiar faces from CNBC mingled among the actors, and questions filled the room: Was James Woods’s portrayal of Lehman CEO Dick Fuld too arch? Would Peter Hermann’s take on former SEC chairman Christopher Cox hamper any political comeback? Of the 33 principals that the actors portrayed, only one showed up: Warren Buffett, who posed with Ed Asner. They were meeting for the first time.
So why did some actors meet the people they played and others didn’t? Paula Weinstein, a producing legend who worked with Hurt on “Body Heat” before they teamed up on this project, excused herself from guests Donna Karan and Carole King to describe the process. Each actor was given a packet of research on his or her real-life character, with news clippings, book extracts, video interviews. It was up to the actor whether he or she would use the contact information and meet the principal face to face.
Seven actors did. Most notably, Billy Crudup arranged to spend 20 minutes last fall during a crosstown car ride with Timothy Geithner (now Treasury secretary and, during the crisis, chairman of the Federal Reserve Bank of New York). Paul Giamatti went to Washington for a lunch with Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke.
Neither Geithner nor Bernanke, each a current government official, was brought into the production other than through those meetings. But one principal was given a draft of the script and a chance to submit his notes: Hank Paulson.
The notes were communicated directly to the production team and evaluated in a group led by HBO Co-President Richard Plepler. “When we do historical pieces, we will reach out to as many of the principals as we can for their perspective, not for their blessing,” Plepler said in a phone interview days later.
Plepler is no stranger to Capitol Hill intrigue, having spent his early career in the employ of former senator Christopher J. Dodd, the Connecticut Democrat who is briefly depicted in the film and who earlier this year became the head of the Motion Picture Association of America. The executive relied on a team of outside advisers — some bankers, a Harvard economist, other journalists working on their own book — to examine the work in progress so that objective analysis could be combined with the insiders’ points of view.
Some notes that Paulson gave were accepted, some were not. If there were corroborating contemporaneous accounts to something Paulson disputed, then the producers left that exchange untouched. “I do remember that he was helpful on a number of fronts,” recalled Jeffrey Levine, Weinstein’s producing partner. On one occasion, Paulson pointed to lines attributed to his wife that were not true to her personality. “That was helpful because it needed to be a human drama, not just a re-creation of the events of the financial collapse,” Levine said.
“Our most important mission was to make sure that we got the journalism right, that we, in the name of drama, did not compromise or sacrifice the historical accuracy of this seminal piece of history,” says Plepler. For HBO’s “Recount,” about the 2000 election aftermath, James Baker saw a draft early on, eyeballing any inaccuracies and offering a counterbalance to material that Gore aide Ron Klain provided. The outreach has already begun on HBO’s next two political potboilers: “Angler,” the acclaimed appraisal of former vice president Dick Cheney’s leadership, and “Game Change,” based on the chronicle of the 2008 campaign. Sarah Palin, who will be played by Julianne Moore in the latter, has already been offered a chance to review parts of the script but has declined, an HBO spokesman confirmed.
Across the aisle
Last year, Michele Davis, who served as Paulson’s spokeswoman, had a Manhattan lunch with her counterpart in “Too Big to Fail,” Cynthia Nixon.
The chance to impress and even influence Nixon had already crossed her mind. “I thought about that a lot before we met. I kept thinking: ‘My one opportunity to give her a sense of who I was.’ It was awkward in that sense,” she recalled.
Nixon, an accomplished stage actor best known as Miranda on TV’s “Sex and the City,” is a strong advocate of many Democratic causes, and she, too, wondered how the exchange would go. “We’re very much on opposite sides of the aisle,” Nixon said. “That didn’t come up too much during our lunch. If you had asked me that I would have had so much in common and so much respect for someone who is a real die-hard member of the Bush White House, I don’t know that I would have believed you. I was really impressed with her.”
Davis agreed that the two women “hit it off,” in Nixon’s words. “We both saw it as a useful meeting because she wanted to grasp exactly what I wanted to convey,” Davis said. It made sense to Davis that a celebrity would know something about the pressure of press coverage and would understand “a rapidly changing situation where words really matter.”
Davis declined to evaluate the result, however, other than to say Nixon’s wig and costuming were astoundingly accurate. (Similarly, Hurt aptly captured the physical bearing of Paulson, at times using a back brace to learn his gait and square-shouldered posture.) “Anything I’m not going to like about the movie is going to be because of the script, not because of the acting,” Davis said.
The collaborations created a balance, Nixon explained, even if the production created scenes that never happened for the sake of explanation, as when Davis asks her male colleagues for help to explain the mess to the press. “It’s not agita. It’s very careful to be nonpartisan,” Nixon said. “I think it’s a work of art.”