At the movies: Untangling the financial meltdown

HBO's Too Big to Fail offers an engaging and tolerable way to understand how the worldwide financial menltdown happened.

It was only three years ago that we, as a national economy, teetered on the precipice of financial ruin, and many working families went over the cliff. Even recent history gets blurred by the mind-numbing complexity. Guest blogger and movie buff Dana Scott suggests an engaging and tolerable way to understand how this messy saga unfolded:

HBO's Too Big to Fail depicts the financial meltdown on Wall Street in 2008 (specifically from August until early October), with emphasis on Treasury Secretary William Paulson's (excellently portrayed by William Hurt) efforts to stem the tide of worldwide financial disaster. The film is based on the book by Andrew Ross Sorkin (not to be confused with the unrelated creator of The West Wing) and focuses on Bear Stearns, Lehman Brothers, Goldman Sachs, AIG and others.

While you will need a scorecard to keep all the characters straight, and may want to have a notepad handy so you can jot down terms which most of us don't deal with on a daily basis, such as TARP, downgrades, credit default swaps and short sellers, there are some spot-on performances.

Paul Giamatti does an excellent impersonation of Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke. A hilarious James Woods spews vitriol as Lehman Brothers CEO Dick Fuld, in deep denial that Lehman has "toxic" assets and refusing any deals that could potentially save the company. A too-handsome Billy Crudup is Tim Geithner, then president of the Federal Reserve Bank of New York and current Treasury Secretary who, among other things, tries to pair strong banks with those that are deemed weak. Tony Shalhoub, looking nothing like Monk, portrays Morgan Stanley CEO John Mack, who refuses to take the advice of Paulson or Bernanke to sell Morgan Stanley.

Edward Asner provides some comic relief, portraying Warren Buffet with a wig almost as bad as the one Cynthia Nixon wears as Michele Davis, Paulson's Assistant Secretary of Public Policy. Smarmiest of all is Bill Pullman as JP Morgan Chase CEO Jamie Dimon.

While Paulson, Geithner and Bernanke are arguably portrayed as the "good guys," this simplistic view does not detract from the tension that builds to the ultimate conclusion, which we all know. The film is suspenseful and offers a glimpse into the kind of back-room drama and deals that transpired.

The characters in this movie provide a good explanation of the events leading up to this crisis, which at the time seemed too confusing (and scary) to try to understand. This movie will give you some fresh perspective, entertain you along the way, and help you follow the continuing aftermath every day in the news.

Now that we are reacclimated to how the government bailout helped those "too-big-to-fail" banks to thrive, we need to think about more ways to help America's "too-small-to-care-about" families, small businesses and communities, who continue to struggle.

Juliana Eades is President of the Community Loan Fund.