Journalism in the Public Interest

In HBO’s ‘Too Big to Fail,’ the Heroes Are Really Zeroes

Watch carefully, and you’ll see how the three men who saved the world—Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke, NY Fed’s Timothy Geithner, and Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson—get it wrong again and again and again.

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May 28, 2011, 2:18 a.m.

The whole story is really told in 2 minutes of the movie, On the first minute of the movie when you see Reagan, Clinton and Bush deregulating the financial system and in the last minute were you see that the Banksters after getting all those billions they did not lend them to America for liquidity follow by 5 million + foreclosures, The worse, is that now we know that these foreclosures are FRAUD by forgetting NOTES(not in the movie of course)


May 28, 2011, 2:23 a.m.

Nick Freeman, you go it just right !

Joyce Jenkins

May 28, 2011, 2:55 p.m.

Notice how these “too big to fail” institutions got bigger as noted by BofA’s acquisition of Merrill. That helps right? This is the way Merrill got so big due to past failures with the blessing of the regulators and the Fed.

There are so many players who share fault that it is almost impossible to prosecute any one entity. The Enron days are past and the players of Fannie/Freddie continue to get away with our tax dollars to this day after taking large salaries and bonuses upon management changes.

The current regulations imposed will not prevent this in the future. Another even may be the end.

Maggie Mahar

May 28, 2011, 11:46 p.m.


A great review.

I woudl just add that at the end, when Bernake/ Giammi asks"They will lend the money out, won’t they?”—I was reminded of Paul Gaimatti’s father, Bart Giamatti, who was always willing to say what no one else in the room wanted to say out loud.  Totally honest, with an acute sense of irony. 

On his blog, “The Big Picture, “money manager Barry Ritholtz writes that “Paul Giammatti plays Ben Bernanke with a viciously dry wit I did not know the Chairman possessed.”

As I’m pretty sure Ritholtz knows,  Bernake does not possess such wit. . He is incapable of that degree of skepticism or dark humor. . 
When asked to play a brilliant professor, Paul Giamatti drew from his memories of his father, who did possess “a viciously dry wit.” In this way, Paul Giamatti created a far more interesting character, adding greatly to the drama which, sad to say, is filled with actors far more intelligent than the people adressing our econimic crisis (then or now).  This ensemble cast of actors has added depth to a tragedy that, in reality, is closer to farce.

The Worden Report

May 29, 2011, 3:06 p.m.

The movie also minimized the problem with Dick Fuld and ignored the fact that he was relegated by McDade’s “coup.”  Also, while the film did point out that the banks did not loan out the TARP funds, the alternative of using TARP to help home-owners facing foreclosure was barely evident. In this broader picture, the heros are even less so. For more, please turn to


May 29, 2011, 3:26 p.m.

Great article.  My take is here -



May 29, 2011, 6:47 p.m.

I agree the movie was a true dud.

Andrew Ross Sorkin has no depth of understanding, and—having been learned, he tells us, in business schools that NO unionized business in America has turned or can turn a profit… well… you can see where he is coming from: the state of ignorance.

Not only did it heroicize Paulson, who schemed with Bush to push a one page outline through Congress to begin with, it villainized Geithner, since of course, he is Obama’s Treasury Secretary.

Pretty transparent propaganda for the republicans who made this all happen.


May 30, 2011, 12:34 p.m.

Juliet emoted Yesterday, 7:47 p.m.:  “Andrew Ross Sorkin has no depth of understanding, and—having been learned, he tells us, in business schools that NO unionized business in America has turned or can turn a profit…”

A little gem, there; conventional wisdom states that the “elitism” of academia results in antipathy for “the right”...that it favors “the people” to an extent that approaches or surpasses “socialism”.  But the reality is the contempt of the academia in America’s “B” schools is reserved for those who “get their hands dirty”; i.e., for working America…for the many, rather than the few.

‘Twas the “B” schools who lionized Al “Chainsaw” Dunlap and instilled the concept that destruction that delivers rapid gains for the individual is preferable to the slower, more incremental returns attained by building a future that benefits the many and so America.  ‘Tis the “B” schools who have now taught two generations of MBAs that the individual bears no responsibility to society; that self is all.

lolll…‘tis the academia of the “B” schools who must be embarrassed into offering ethics courses.


May 31, 2011, 7:41 p.m.

If Glass-Steagall had not been repealed by Gramm-Leach-Bliley in 1999, this would not have happened…now we can restore Glass Steagall, with Marci Kaptur’s HR 1489, in the House right now!  Call your Congressman and tell him/her to be a co-sponsor!  Glass Steagall is the way to stop the criminal, continuing bailouts of Wall Street/London speculators!

Nick Freeman

May 31, 2011, 8:09 p.m.

Propublica is one of the few ‘barking dogs’ during this meltdown. Perhaps the rest of the pack is too well fed, muzzled with plenty of treats (access, invites, and accolades) to bother.

Same with the rule of law, pursuing miscreants, or herding white collar criminals to any standard. The DOJ can’t even figure where the crime starts, and the ‘deregulation’ stops,  they are lying by the fireplace, guarding what exactly?

The Breitbarts, the Gingriches and other ideological pitbulls patrol the Koch Brothers primary position at the public trough - barking, snarling and biting any daring to question their masters’ deeds, their territory, their intentions.

Mad Dogs or Patriots? A pack of hyenas or sturdy guardians of the American Way?


June 1, 2011, 12:07 p.m.

Nick Freeman commented yesterday, 9:09 p.m.“The Breitbarts, the Gingriches and other ideological pitbulls patrol the Koch Brothers primary position at the public trough - barking, snarling and biting any daring to question their masters’ deeds, their territory, their intentions.  Mad Dogs or Patriots? A pack of hyenas or sturdy guardians of the American Way?”

Seems to me that the right’s media organs have applied the right’s philosophical approach to wealth accumulation to the way they generate “the news”, to whit:  “If it will help make the chosen wealthier or more powerful, then method matters not.”.

Consequently they begin to resemble the fabled Yankee weather gauge (namely, a piece of rope; if it is wet, it’s raining; if white, it’s snowing, etc.) in that if their mouths are moving, they’re lying.

Frieda Friendentia

June 1, 2011, 1:47 p.m.

J.Bromowski in “The Ascent of Man” defined war as organized theft, the actions of the banking industy is indeed organized theft of the assets of the American family. When you hear the words “class war” think “war on the working class”, each time they payoff our elected officials with donations to election orgaizations they are buying the armnaments that will justify the actions necessary to win the war of ownership. Remember the “vital stakeholder” speech from GWBush? Our vital stakeholding of debt gave the banks and their mercenaries the needed leverage to rob us of our homes!!  I am facing forclosure, the house I made double payments on at the expence of vacations and “discresionay spending” will be taken away. I am so ashamed of the incest between the Lawmakers and the Risktakers who have raped the American People of their dignity, security and trust in the name of “credit default swaps”, greed lust and profit motive.


June 3, 2011, 10:34 p.m.

I reflect back to Clinton - Rubin former CEO of Goldman Sachs as US Treasurer. Citi-bank merged, violated the Glass Steaglel act and a year later, Clinton repealed the law with the Gramm-Leach-Biley. Guess who became the CEO of Citi-bank - how about Rubin, former US Treasurer and made $hundreds of Millions. Then Brooksley Borne warned of derivatives and the SEC head, Greenspan, and Rubin put her in a box passing the Commodity Futures Trading Modernization act keeping derivatives in the shadows with assets as large as the regulated banks. Then I read where the SEC, CFTC, the FBI were “underfunded” by Congress, and few investigations of Fraud were conducted over a decade by the agencies in charge of protecting America’s assets. Then Hank Poulson comes along, former Nixon aide, former CEO of “guess who” Goldman Sachs, and two years later a competitor fof Goldman Sachs, Lehman brothers fails.
Then Henry calls for a “30 day” $700 Billion but does not disclose, like in the movie, how he came up with the figure with “it’s complicated”. Congress drags its feet and the Dow drops, then 4 days later grant the emergency funding that was not just $700 Billion but $14 Trillion in guarantees secretly held by the FED. In the meantime, Goldman Sachs have been pushing securitized mortgages as AAA and on the other side saying they were junk and Goldman Sachs with John Poulson makes $Billions betting sub-prime securities will fail. Then you see former CEO Henry Poulson, calling the large 9 banks to take the “free money” perhaps to hide his Goldman Sachs fraud. If they are all in on the “take” it hides the real culprit - Goldman Sachs, Henry’s former Company who really was behind Lehman failing. Makes it easier to hide with a group of 9 banks as a diversion doesn;t it?
The Financial Crisis Inquiry Commission determined this mess did not have to happen, it was caused by the likes of Rubin, Greenspan, Summers, and all the other Wall Street banksters. Oh, after Greenspan retired from the FED, he went to work for, guess who, John Paulson who doubled his profits the following year. In the meantime, the banks use the money to buy other banks and get larger. They take the HAMP program to put families at risk, not modifying mortgages but helping putting people at more risk with forbearance and false promises and schemes to force shortsales so the banks make profit from foreclosures via the FDIC insurance payments of $hundreds of thousands on every home while 25% of our kids are homeless and thousands of homes lie empty.
I notice more activity by the SEC and CFTC and FBI with Fraud accusations, but I also notice, the new House of Representatives have reduced budgets of law enforcement agencies like the SEC.
In the meantime, none of the Fraudster Banksters are in jail. We damn well better put some of these people in jail. They made a hell of a lot of money at the expense of millions of families in the USA.
This movie is Hollywood. Hank Poulson was no hero, he was the “cover up” master of the Fraud where a few of his buddies and himself probably, especially Goldman Sachs made $Billions in Profit from this crisis, paid for with taxpayers dollars and now future generations are straddled with debt and the Rich get richer, paying little in taxes. By the way, you have to make money to pay taxes. 400 individuals have more wealth than 150 million Americans while the Middle Class shrinks and poverty increases and every family under age 65 is one major illness away from Medical Bankruptcy like 900,000 families experience annually.
If you are not outraged, you are not paying attention.

Matt Waters

June 8, 2011, 1:02 a.m.

I’m late to the party here, but I agree with one commenter that it is extremely sad and predictable that “bankster” conspiracy theorists would take over this comment thread.

I just watched the film and I think it did fairly well at what it set out to do. It gave regular viewers with a somewhat simplified version of events. It didn’t really exposit the “why” behind the crisis because it didn’t set out to do so. “All the President’s Men” does not go into Nixon’s motivations or why America elected such a man either. It’s there to give a version of events and nobody has really contradicted Too Big to Fail’s version of events.

The real issue is that it DID in fact just show the truth. It didn’t lay out some vast, illicit global conspiracy headed by the Rothschilds and the Rockefellers, with a secret meeting where their puppets pledged 700 billion dollars to their accounts in Geneva and Bermuda. Such a film does not exist because such an account just isn’t true.

Other versions that don’t exist:

1. Where TARP cost 700 billion dollars of taxpayer money. After all is said it done, it will probably make money or at most lose 25 billion or less. It’s amazing just how many people can’t grasp this simple point. Even AIG will pay back most of their loan or even pay back all. The only three bailouts which will cost real money are the GSE’s, GM and Chrysler.

2. Where Paulson worked 20 hours a day during the crisis for his buddies at Goldman. I guess there’s no way to disprove that it wasn’t all to save Goldman’s and Buffett’s ass, but the overwhelming amount of evidence is that Paulson acted in goodwill to save the financial system, even if you think he was wrong to act in such a way.

3. Where the financial regulators or financial CEO’s are competent. I would guess many commenters here haven’t actually seen the film, because they think it lionizes financial players. It shows them all with varying degrees of incompetence. It shows Paulson acting valiantly, which is the truth, but it mentions repeatably that they were collectively dumbasses for supporting such deregulation and then not planning ahead more for the eventual collapse.

It’s unfortunate that bankster conspiracy theories get in the way of real, honest discussion. The banks have an easy strawman with such arguments, that they’re opponents are against ANY sort of real wealth and are playing class warfare. They could also say that such opponents have a very shallow understanding of what banks actually do, which I believe is true as well.

What we really need is for public opinion to shift from “OMG the banks are part of a global conspiracy!1!” to that “the banks need higher capital requirements, far more transparency in the shadow market, open exchanges for most shadow market transactions and better rules for winding down insolvent banks, just like we have for FDIC deposits.” Of course, such rhetoric doesn’t rally people like bankster crap or free-market crap and the free-market crap will eventually drown out the overheated bankster crap.

Sam Mandke

June 8, 2011, 10:30 a.m.

@Matt Waters:

I agree with you to the extent that there are these theories about the Rothchilds, the Fed, George Soros, and Mr. Burns are pulling all the strings.  That being said, I don’t think it’s a mutually exclusive proposition that 1) the bank regulators were incompetent, and 2) that Paulson in the end took actions that were expressly for the benefit of his former employer.  As was stated in the movie, there still looms large this absurd proposition that the banks wouldn’t take the money if there were conditions attached. 

You mentioned “overwhelming evidence” that Paulson acted “in goodwill”, but this is simply not true.  All of the meetings that took place were unrecorded and off-record.  All we have are second hand accounts by people who have a vested interest in making themselves appear to be acting in the best interest of society as a whole.  Further, Mr. Paulson had $640 Million in stock and options as his retirement package from Goldman, which it’s a good guess that was part of his calculus.  Imagine if you were about to see your retirement go up in smoke?  Add to that Paulson was the one that got Goldman dabbling in the mortgage-backed securities in the first place during his tenure as CEO of Goldman. 

Finally, your assessment of TARP is a bit naive.  There have been trillions more in Fed and Treasury guarantees given out beyond TARP.  The TARP money was paid back was paid using Fed funds.  Now, Goldman and Company, by borrowing from the Fed at 0% and buying Treasuries at 3%+, are literally moving their losses from their balance sheets to the taxpayers’ balance sheet. I recommend reading Matt Taibi for a better view of what’s going on there. 

I would add simple enforcement of antitrust statutes already on the books to your list of things to fix “too big to fail”.


June 8, 2011, 10:48 a.m.

@Matt Waters:  There is also the fact that you yourself acknowledge the primary conspiracy:  The mutual effort by almost all bankers, their paid lobbyists, and their wholly-owned operatives in Congress to drown out any talk of regulation and mandatory visibility with “free market” crap.

If your conspiracy to weaken or destroy any and all regulatory oversight works…and it did (and it does)...then no further conspiracies are required as each individual is free to rape and pillage (financially-speaking) as they please.

And they did (and they do).

Matt Waters

June 8, 2011, 2:55 p.m.

Actually, the best thing financially to ever happen to Paulson was that he sold all his Goldman stock. His options even had their vesting schedules accelerated so that he sold all his stock the day he became Treasury secretary. It turned out that he became Treasury secretary right around the peak of Goldman’s stock price and he made hundreds of millions of cash through the sale. The film alluded to his immense pile of cash somewhat when it said that Paulson rented the private jet “on his card.”

So, without a financial interest in Goldman, the argument becomes that he was still just looking out for his old buddies at Goldman, even though he had no financial interest. The argument goes that he let Lehman fail and then Goldman had its ass saved, but in reality he did everything possible to save Lehman without a bailout and came extremely close.

And while it’s true the meeting were unrecorded and off the record, dozens of bankers and regulators became involved with the meetings at some point and “Too Big to Fail’s” account has stood up against other accounts of the story. Sure, without hard evidence of conversations there’s room to say Sorkin and others made it all up and all the players have kept their story straight. But through Occam’s Razor, the consensus of reports about the meetings is overwhelmingly likely to be generally accurate.

The TARP and Fed issues get very complex and I won’t go into all of them here. However, the Fed’s balance sheet has profited from all the crap they bought during the financial crisis and then rebate the profits to the Treasury. The Fed’s website lays all the instruments out, as well as the counterparty risk involved, in excruciating details. It’s easy for somebody like Taibi to demagogue the issue because it is very complex.


June 8, 2011, 4:11 p.m.

Be a lot easier to believe that the financial industry was on the up-and-up if they had a history of being on the up-and-up.  But the role they have played in American history over the last century states otherwise.

That and the fact that they both continue to fight regulation and are far from the smallest players in the “America will reverse its decline since the inception of ‘flood-up/trickle-down’ economics if only you accelerate ‘flood-up/trickle-down’ economics!” lobbying effort.

Sam Mandke

June 8, 2011, 5:26 p.m.

@ Matt Waters:

You are correct, I overstated Mr. Paulson’s financial interest in Goldman at the time he was Treasury Secretary, though I’m not sure about the acceleration of his restricted stock compensation schedules, or what he did with it once he sold it (just saying).  Nonetheless,  The lack of direct financial interest does not negate all interest; just look at Clarence Thomas and his wife during the upcoming Healthcare Reform appeals at the Supreme Court. The conflicts of interest for Paulson with regard to Goldman stemmed inherently from his 30 year career there.  What us “conspiracy theorists” are saying is: if Goldman hadn’t been involved in any CDS trades with AIG, would AIG have been bailed out to the tune of 100 cents on the dollar, no strings attached on the CDS trades?

With respect to the accuracy of the accounts, they do not constitute evidence of Paulson’s good faith in his actions.  And, honestly, if the movie’s depictions are correct, then he really didn’t act in good faith anyway, because he did far from all that he could, which included bringing the full force of the government on the heads of the bankers personally.

The Fed/TARP issue is not complex, it is convoluted, which is the case with most Wall Street transactions.  The Fed’s reported balance sheet suffers from the same accounting gimmickry that most Wall Street firms and Fortune 500 Companies do. They are counting loans yet to be paid as assets does not have the guarantees they doled out listed on it. This, combined with the fact that these subprime mortgage securities are degrading to this day seems to leave a hole in their balance sheet.  Further, the losses are also not necessarily realized yet on much of this since there is a mounting foreclosure backlog.  Yes, you can say “TARP didn’t cost the taxpayers money” in a very closed context limited to TARP itself; but in the broader context of the economy, it is costing taxpayers a lot by not fixing what it was meant to. 

With respect to Taibi’s reporting and the Fed, the Fed was only recently forced to display those instruments that you mentioned by Congress. Taibi is correct when he reports that many of the loans the Fed made were non-recourse, that the Fed has given loans to Wall Street wives and the like with favorable terms. The Fed has done a fantastic job of hiding the real nature of the losses stemming from Wall Street’s shenanigans.

Nick Freeman

June 8, 2011, 9:25 p.m.

The song remains the same. The divas come on stage, sing their lungs out, retreat back stage, and the flowers and accolades rain down.
It’s a tragedy none the less, with real victims, and folks who went down hard for the American Dream, Madoff era.

Nothing substitutes for hard, decent real work. Credit creation, and financial shenanigans, offshore havens, PR spin and hype- are ways of not solving the issues.

It’s a culture of rampant corporate corruption, Enron, WorldCom, BofA, Countrywide, LPS with impunity, because the fix is in, one hundred years of Corporate PR and lies have convinced us that up is down, greed is good, and the latest version - it’s all his fault (pick one of a steady supply)

Paulson sang, like Greenspan sang. They got the roses, the backstage passes, and the accolades. Imagine their outcome if they had done the right thing - like tell the truth. What a concept.

Joe Collins

June 15, 2011, 10:47 a.m.

For those who don’t remember we had 40 years of quiet in the financial sector after the Glass-Steagall Act was passed in 1938.  After Phill Gramm got the Gramm-Leach-Bliley Act (otherwise known as the Citibank Relief Act) passed in 1999 we have had larger and larger financial disasters.  If we had not allowed the banks, brokerage houses and insurance companies to combine then we would not be in this mess.  And this mess will affect us for at least a generation.  The Wall Street bankers and traders had an acronym: IBGYBG.  “I’ll be gone. You’ll be gone.

michael noble

June 21, 2011, 9:08 p.m.

I am very late to this party, but I have been suing the banks in federal court.  We struggle to get the banks to settle.  My clients file bankruptcy because of this ponzi scheme and a few times I agreed to sue the banks.  I am trying to figure this out and need an expert like you guys.  I thought the Inside Job, with Matt Damon narrating, was excellent.  I watched it three times.  I thought Too big to fail was produced by Goldman Sachs, barely worth watching once.

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This article is part of an ongoing investigation:
The Wall Street Money Machine

The Wall Street Money Machine

Enticed by profits and bonuses, Wall Street took advantage of complicated mortgage-based instruments to reap billions, only to exacerbate the eventual crash.

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