It's coming. Men in suits. Men with phones. Men in meetings. Timpani please. HBO's "Too Big to Fail," which I would watch if I had HBO, debuts the day this fine publication hits the streets. I have read every page of Andrew Ross Sorkin's big book. I have questions, mostly about casting. Is it too late? Paul Giamatti as Ben Bernanke? Neurotic John Adams, perhaps, but smooth Ben? In fact, Bernanke is a shadowy visage in Sorkin's tome; he mostly phoned in instructions to his boy in New York, Timothy Geithner (Billy Crudup). And Tony Shalhoub as John Mack. Monk as Mack? Dark, very dark. James Woods, with that hollowed, mildly deranged hatchet face could be a zombified Dick Fuld. Then there's William Hurt as Hank Paulson. As the scriptwriter declares in the release for the film, "We landed on Hank Paulson [what is this, an alien spacecraft?] as being the person to center this on, because he's a unique person." Genetically, that's true. Geithner, Mack, Fuld, Bernanke, Jamie Dimon (Bill Pullman) and the rest are presumably not so unique. They are men in suits on phones in meetings. As "Alex," who commented on the release (even flackery gets comments today), opined: "Sounds long and dull (should win lots of awards) maybe if they add a car chase? How many of Obama's biggest donors work on Wall Street."
Say what? It's slightly off-putting when director Curtis Hanson offers, "We tried to do the best we could to be truthful." We tried? Hell, Fuld tried and look how that worked out. What does all this mean anyway, beyond teeth-shattering, drum-rumbling suspense? Sorkin's book was a labor of cross-referencing; he talked to many of the suits, then sorted it all out in 539 pages. Inevitably, there were differences of interpretation, not to say facts. These men in suits scrambled to save the world. Who was cool, who sweated? Who's a mensch, who's a yutz? In the movie, we'll get moody reality filtered through the suits to Sorkin; through the script; through actors, who all got DVDs of their characters testifying or being interviewed; through Hanson; through HBO's fiscal needs; to us. That's a lot of throughs. "Paulson is a man of action," says our scriptwriter. "He's a man of the moment. He's a person who shoots first and asks questions later." I assume he's being metaphorical, though you never know (remember Hank's own backfiring metaphorical bazooka).
The earliest reporting on the crisis fixated, like "Too Big to Fail" or David Wessel's "In Fed We Trust," on you-were-there moments. The drama was real, albeit in a sort of existential Weberian bureaucratic context. But it's jarring that so much of what led up to the crisis and meltdown, so much of what occurred in those autumnal days of 2008, involved matters of bewildering complexity, perplexity, misinterpretation and analytical mishaps, much of it overseen by men in suits in both government and finance who prowl "Too Big to Fail" like lion kings in search of the buffet. It is not Sorkin's or Wessel's fault that they didn't fully capture the manifold aspects of this post-industrial, global metacrisis, not to say mysteries like Fuld's psyche, while the bespoke cats frantically bailed. But hurtling action -- you, go deep and value Lehman mortgages; you, beat AIG across the middle -- casts only a watery light on these systemic, deep-as-a-dingle intellectual puzzles. Neither book nor movie is about causation or accountability: They're about big, photogenic men faced with what Mr. Crudup calls "the ticking time bomb." Hurt as Hank makes like cellphone maniac Jack Bauer just to torture us again.
The earliest books on the crisis seemed to argue that if you were in the room, you were in the know. The slightly later books seemed to argue that if you knew the history of mortgages or deregulation or credit default swaps you could begin to foresee remedies. Both were overly optimistic. The books that are drifting out now -- the best ones -- are those that will never see a flat screen unless it's a Kindle. They are attempts to wrestle with more intractable, complicated, ambiguous questions that underlie the crisis; they are, one can only hope, distantly related to John Maynard Keynes' "General Theory" of 1936. They wrestle with difficult regulatory questions like resolution authority, regulatory capture, leverage and capital, size and innovation, and too-big-to-fail (which persists). They strike at the root of our economic thinking. They force us to revisit a past that suddenly looks strange. They feature no heroes, no car chases, no happy endings, no simple meanings. Their audience will be small. They will work their magic slowly and secretly.
For more commentary from the editor in chief, see The Deal Economy blog.