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Access Journalism: The Movie

Posted on May 24, 2011

Geithner, lionized: Actor Billy Crudup plays a noble version of our current treasury secretary in “Too Big to Fail.”

By Robert Scheer

It is not true, as a Wall Street Journal reviewer claimed, that the HBO movie version of Andrew Sorkin’s book “Too Big to Fail” was “Too Boring to Watch.” On the contrary, the problem with the film, featuring excellent acting and taut direction, as with the richly anecdotal book, is that it is all too effectively misleading. 

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Fortunately, if viewers have already watched “Inside Job,” the spot-on Academy Award winner, they will not be led too far astray by this film’s adulation of the likes of Henry Paulson and Timothy Geithner. Paulson is portrayed as an eminently decent man, troubled by the imperfections of the TARP bailout, and when he throws up off camera in one scene it is not at all suggested that perhaps he could be disgusted that the misery he brought to the world had left him a billionaire.

When he resigned his position as head of Goldman Sachs to become treasury secretary, he cashed in $485 million in Goldman stock and was saved from a $100 million tax liability because he was entering government “service.” The film barely mentioned that Paulson was the head of Goldman Sachs when his company deceptively packaged and sold the collateralized debt obligations (CDOs) based on the subprime and Alt A mortgages that proved so toxic. 

As Paulson concedes in his memoir, after George W. Bush appointed him treasury secretary, the president asked plaintively as the economy was crumbling: “How did this happen?” In Sorkin’s book, it is stated that the treasurer “disregarded the question, knowing that the answer would be way too long.” But in his memoir, Paulson provides a clearer insight:  “It was a humbling question for someone from the financial sector to be asked—after all, we were the ones responsible.”

No such honesty has yet emerged from Geithner, who was an undersecretary of the treasury during the Clinton years, when he worked closely with his bosses, first Robert Rubin and then Lawrence Summers, to pass the radical deregulation hinted at but never fully explained in either the Sorkin book or the film. There is scant reference to the obliteration of the Glass-Steagall Act, a repeal that permitted the too-big-to-fail merger of companies such as Travelers and Citicorp, which became Citigroup—a company that had to be bailed out with $50 billion in taxpayer money. 


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Nor is there any reference in the film to the fact that Rubin, mentor to both Summers and Geithner, went on to help run that new megabank at a salary of $15 million a year. Geithner, who later became head of the New York Fed, a job obtained with the effusive recommendations of both Rubin and Summers, worked to salvage Citigroup from the mess its packaging of toxic mortgages had created.

Geithner is lionized in both Sorkin’s book and the film version. As Nancy deWolf Smith put it in The Wall Street Journal: “Some viewers who remember the book may be galled again by the portrayal of certain characters. For instance, Timothy Geithner (Billy Crudup), then president of the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, still comes across as a blameless saint and Wunderkind with a compassionate finger on the pulse of the victimized ordinary man.” The fawning in the book is embarrassing, as in the description of Summers and his treasury assistant in the Clinton years going off to tennis camp, with Sorkin noting, “Geithner, with his six-pack abs, had a game that matched his policy-making prowess.” Not to be overlooked is “his usual firm, athletic handshake.”

That policy prowess must extend to the destructive CDO deregulation that Geithner and Summers pushed through Congress and that, in an image in the movie, we see Bill Clinton signing into law. That legislation, not specifically referenced in Sorkin’s book, was called the Commodity Futures Modernization Act (CFMA). It banned the application of any existing regulation or regulatory agency authority to the emerging market in CDOs that turned out to be disastrous. 

These were the same CDOs that AIG backed with phony insurance “swaps,” resulting in the Geithner-led $170 billion bailout of the company with the money passed through to Goldman and the other banks covered by AIG. Neither the CFMA nor the heroic and incredibly prescient Brooksley Born, then chief of the Commodity Futures Trading Commission, whose dire warnings about the new financial gimmicks were effectively silenced by the CFMA, are mentioned in the index of Sorkin’s book.

At the end of HBO’s film about how skillfully Henry Paulson, Ben Bernanke and Timothy Geithner managed to force the top banks to accept $700 billion in bailout money, the question is posed as to whether the banks so saved would turn around and lend money to save the homes of ordinary folks. The outcome was quite the opposite.

The economy remains in deep trouble thanks in considerable measure to the “bankers-first” priorities that Geithner and Summers brought with them to the Barack Obama presidency. The housing industry is deeply depressed, new home construction starts this year are expected to match the lowest point since records first were kept in 1963, housing values are predicted to decline at least 5 percent more this year, and without an improvement in housing there will be no significant increase in consumption or jobs.

Further, on the day HBO premiered the film, The New York Times reported that the top banks now have an inventory of foreclosed homes that is twice as high as when the crisis began four years ago, and, “In addition, they are in the process of foreclosing on an additional one million homes and are poised to take possession of several million more in the years ahead.”

The film and the book, by centering on TARP, make that bailout the big deal, and when the bailout money was paid back to free the bankers’ bonuses from regulation, it was celebrated by Geithner as “the most effective government program in recent memory.” Rubbish! As Paul Atkins and two other members of the Congressional Oversight Panel on TARP wrote in a blistering WSJ column exposing the TARP settlement: “It hides the full story of the government’s financial crisis effort, of which TARP is but a minor part”; the major part being the $1.1 trillion in toxic mortgages that the Fed purchased from the banks, the $380 billion bailout of Fannie Mae and Freddy Mac, and the loan guarantees of “other Fed and FDIC programs [that] added another $2 trillion of taxpayer money at risk to the 19 stress tested banks alone.” And then there is the 50 percent run-up in the national debt, thanks to the banks’ savaging of the economy that will haunt us for decades to come.

Perhaps the main value of the book and film is the instruction they provide on the limits of mainstream journalism in the decade that led up to the meltdown. Sorkin, who rose to be a business editor at the Times, covered Wall Street deal-making in exquisite detail, relying on an access journalism that has often proved deeply flawed in traditional business news coverage. What was largely ignored as it was unfolding was the story of the unbridled power of Wall Street financiers over the political process that caused this tragedy for so many tens of millions who have lost jobs and homes.

Click here to check out Robert Scheer’s new book,
“The Great American Stickup: How Reagan Republicans and Clinton Democrats Enriched Wall Street While Mugging Main Street.”

Keep up with Robert Scheer’s latest columns, interviews, tour dates and more at


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By Maani, June 1, 2011 at 6:48 pm Link to this comment

I agree with the “dissenters” dang and jerrywrite: I did not get from the movie that Paulson, Geithner et al were being made to look sympathetic, or that this was some kind of propagandistic “spin.”  I felt that Hanson let the tale unfold, and that EVERYONE looked bad, including Paulson, Geithner, etc. [N.B. However greedy, self-involved, etc. Paulson, Geithner, et al are, they are also human beings: to have portrayed them simply as “sinister villains” would not have been either watchable…or correct.]

I also shouted epithets at the screen, and ended up incredibly angry at the end - and rightly so, because what I saw was a dozen or so men (and maybe a woman or two) playing cavalierly and callously with the lives of every single person in this country.

True, it was no “Inside Job.”  But bravo to Curtis Hanson for reminding me why I am so angry about this!


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By Michael Z, May 29, 2011 at 8:49 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

September 2008 (Written prior to the first TARP vote)


One cannot resolve a problem unless one understands the problem.

PROBLEM:  Financial institutions have reduced their lending.
The problem results from the impaired equity portion of the balance sheets of these institutions, with the impairment caused by write-downs of their assets (loans).

Due to the losses they have taken, these institutions, by law, have had their maximum potential lending amounts reduced.

The amount they are able to lend is contingent upon the amount of their equity capital (EC), e.g., if an institution has an equity capital of one billion dollars and is able to lend up to 20 times its equity capital, it could lend up to 20 billion dollars.
After taking loan write-downs (losses) of two hundred million dollars, its EC would now be 800 million dollars, thus it would have its maximum lending authority limited to 16 billion dollars, i.e., a constriction of its legal authorization to lend. 

This is the crux of the problem.

The institutions have funds, i.e., liquidity.  But, without the legal authority to increase lending, they are sitting in stagnant water.

Those who say that one going to one’s ATM for a withdrawal may find a closed sign are, absolutely, lying or ignorant. 

If one is a Representative or Senator and is lying, he or she should be Impeached and removed from Office. 

Likewise, if that Representative or Senator is ignorant, he or she, apparently, is not, adequately, accepting his or her fiduciary responsibility of understanding a subject prior to advocating or voting for it, thus he or she should also be Impeached and removed from Office.

PAULSON PLAN:  Purchase impaired mortgages from financial institutions with taxpayer funds.
Indeed, this would positively affect an institution’s EC, because the impairment (loss) would have been transferred to the taxpayers.  This reversal of loss would be achieved by paying face price rather than market price, since if the market price were paid, there would be no effect upon EC.

This contemplated action is anti-capitalistic, immoral, and a method of stealing from taxpayers.
The taxpayers did not cause the capital impairment (this IS the problem, i.e., “It’s the balance sheet, stupid”).
Anyone involved with designing this scheme and voting for it should be incarcerated as co-conspirators to steal from the citizenry. 

The scheme’s authors and those who advocate for it would be precipitating an admission that capitalism doesn’t work, which is a lie. 

Capitalism is the best economic tool ever devised, but as with any tool, it can be and has been abused. 
Congress should accept most of the responsibility for creating the economic atmospheric conditions that enabled the abuse.

Further, any resolution of this financial phenomenon will not abate the underlying problems of the economy. 

It is not the lack of lending that has damaged the economy.  It is the economy, affected by greed, that has damaged the lending, but, of course, if appropriate corrective actions are not taken in regards to this financial phenomenon, our weak economics will be adversely affected.

If the Paulson plan were adopted, it would be the most massive SPE by multiples, the dollar would weaken, interest rates would go up, thus the decline in home prices would be exacerbated, and the EC would require further resuscitations.


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By gerard, May 29, 2011 at 5:31 pm Link to this comment

Does anybody else but me put two and two together and get a speculative answer something like this: Too much violence in modern society (constant warring plus constant exploitation at the expense of masses left in poverty, illness and pain) has led to a rapid but unexamined change in human social health? 

Further, this change may now be widespread—the result (due to constant negative impact of disastrous information) causing a spontaneous loss of empathy and creating an emotional numbness that blocks the previously normal intuitive human response to the suffering of others. 

This, then, leading to an increased isolationism, a desire not to see, notice, feel or do anything to prevent or alleviate, but instead to willingly snction, and even engage in exploitation of others’ difficulties and feel no troubling compunctions?

  It is a recent concern of psychologists that autism (lack of ability to empathize, a kind of social numbness) in children) is increasing, most of them with normal “IQs” and many far above average.

  Studies are concentrating on areas of the brain that are visibly changing due to this process. It appears that genetic changes may be involved.

  Could it be that, although the change is only now being noticed, in reality it has been going on long enough to have altered many thousands of minds, to the detriment of the human ability to “relate” at all levels of society, particularly in the isolating “individualism” of highly technologized

  If so, the changes we need to make in the way we
are behaving in the world, we can begin at once.

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By dang, May 27, 2011 at 1:27 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

Not really sure what Mr. Sheer is writing about Geitner I don’t think him or Paulson are portrayed in any particular good light and after having just watched the movie I think the director was letting the whole picture speak for itself and put the point across that things have not changed. I certainly got the impression of something sinister in regards Geitners continued employment as Treasury Secretary

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By PatrickHenry, May 26, 2011 at 3:06 pm Link to this comment

Too big to fail.

How do you know until you let it.

Iceland left the banks to their own demise, afterall it is a private, for profit business.

They are better off for it.

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By Feral Cat, May 26, 2011 at 6:38 am Link to this comment

We need a Visconti to do this story justice.  I recommend watching his “The Damned”.

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By Wooden Blinds, May 26, 2011 at 12:39 am Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

The books title attracts readers even me.. I guess I’ll
just read the summary.. I don’t wanna end up

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By carl moore, May 25, 2011 at 10:27 pm Link to this comment

Great.  A Zionist Nazi comes to the U.S.A., spreads hate and tells lies to a crowd
of giddy congressmen and women, getting them very excited by the stimulation
of their own blood lust - - receiving multiple standing ovations for his rabid
statements, and the two lead-ins on the next days Truthdig are longwinded
movie reviews.
We were disgraced by our own congress - - let’s go to the movies.

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By TAO Walker, May 25, 2011 at 6:53 pm Link to this comment

“Tao” is, of course not “a Chinese word,” “beautiful” or “old,” at-all.  It is an English-language rendition of a sound some Peoples make to refer-to “that which can’t be captured in words.” 

Words certainly are often “laden with….meaning.” Some of it is indeed “brilliant,” some actually “simple.” The Tao, though, with its innate brilliance, simply can’t be bothered with the burden of such man-made CONceits.

Had “litlpeep” stopped, honestly, at “I don’t understand,” and refrained modestly from all the dogmatic following verbiage, some basis for reaching some understanding might’ve been reached.  As it is….


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By peace drone, May 25, 2011 at 6:21 pm Link to this comment

We should not seek to operate a system based on the principle of “private gains and public losses.” And these losses are massively skewed in ways that are grossly inefficient, in addition to being completely anti-competitive. 

Geithner as been completely honest and unvarying in his actions.  He has faithfully served his financial overlords and their plutocratic-megalomania, which in turn allowed them to protect their ill-gotten plunder (and add to it). It likely goes without mention that Turbo’s well positioned handy-work has also warrants the untarnished,exclusive power-elite breeding posturing i.e. exceptional talent status.

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By malcontent_bebe, May 25, 2011 at 3:20 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

Geithner, Obama, and all of the rest of the banksters who shafted the American public by looting our treasury of billions, then lending the money back to the country need to be in a PRISON. Understand? That goes for the cronies in the Bush administration who plundered Medicare and Social Security to fund illegal wars. All of them need to be in jail for being traitors, thieves, murderers and liars.

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By jerrywrite, May 25, 2011 at 2:57 pm Link to this comment

Oddly, enough i thought the movie made all the participants look like the bumbling fools and predators they are in real life. Jamie Dimon is a sly, cunning rat. Lloyd Blankfein is an amoral boor. Paulson and Geithner didn’t seem to have a clue. The British regulators are stuffy and equally clueless. And the rest of the predators are just along for the ride. What’s not to like?

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By litlpeep, May 25, 2011 at 2:12 pm Link to this comment

This is, as one might anticipate, another exceptionally compelling piece of journalism.  It is too bad our nation has so few such writers.  Thank
heavens this site has an unusually high percentage of compelling writers.

But I don’t understand what all that nonsense is with the comment that claims to somehow be about “the tao of humanity.”

It sounds to me like someone is taking a perfectly beautiful old Chinese word so laden with brilliant and simple meaning that one must work feverishly to reduce it to a dogma glibly walked about.

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By Jack Fitzgerald, May 25, 2011 at 1:04 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

I have seen Andrew Sorkin on every TV show imaginable over the last couple of
weeks—even ending up on Bill Maher. I concluded that he was a shill for Wall
Street and Republicans. On Bill Maher, I noticed how he kind of had to sit on his
lips to keep from outwardly showing his right-wing leanings. In no way did I
have him down as possessing a progressive or liberal bone in his body.

I didn’t read the book but I did see the movie Sunday night. Actually it played
like an old Roy Rogers or Gene Autry Saturday shoot-em-up. Gene or Roy
saves the day for the cattlemen with the help of the local banker (or sheriff) 
and his beautiful daughter—this latter character was Tim Geithner in the
Sorkin film.

Great theater it wasn’t. In fact, I felt had and wanted my nearly two hours back.

I don’t know how long it will take—maybe 40 years—but the country is being
run by a group of cowboy bad guys. Maybe within 40 years we’ll get a Roy or a
Gene who will finally rid us of the word “Republican”. We’re like Germany—
we’re going to have to get fascism out of our systems by trying it out—then
comes the light after our butts have been demolished—but, hey, that’s forty
years. In the meantime, we’ve got all this “greed” and “power” crap to swim

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By mackTN, May 25, 2011 at 1:00 pm Link to this comment

“The economy remains in deep trouble thanks in considerable measure to the
“bankers-first” priorities that Geithner and Summers brought with them to the
Barack Obama presidency. The housing industry is deeply depressed, new home
construction starts this year are expected to match the lowest point since
records first were kept in 1963, housing values are predicted to decline at least
5 percent more this year, and without an improvement in housing there will be
no significant increase in consumption or jobs.”

This crime and the administration’s refusal to rectify it and its support of
“banker’s first” values is one reason that I probably will not vote in 2012.  The
Democrats would have you believe that their support of Medicare is what
distinguishes them from Republicans.  The Medicare fiasco is their lifeline
because they’ve not led on other progressive issues to protect the working
people of this country. 

Before u cheer the Democrats protection of Medicare, best hear exactly how
they plan to “compromise” with the Repulicans first.

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By EdWatters, May 25, 2011 at 11:14 am Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

History is usually written by the powerful or at least with the needs of the powerful in mind. If they told the truth, how would they be able to get us to bail them out next time?

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By LilyMaskew, May 25, 2011 at 11:11 am Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

All of the corruption that was pervasive at the time of this movie could not be contained in all of the bank buildings in the US.  It infected the larcenous, and infected those that were innocent, or at least unaware.  What is too big to fail is the ideology of those who want money at the risk of all else in life.  The current culture of grasping for money and power is too big to be accommodated on this earth.

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By Barry Simon, May 25, 2011 at 10:32 am Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

I watched this movie last night and was overwhelmed by the amount of detail and the lack of anyone to sympathize with. And it was boring because there was no one to root for. While the filmmakers attempted to make Paulson the “hero,” it didn’t work because I knew he was not the solution but part of the problem. But the sight of that conference room with all those white guys on one side of the table and all those white guys and gals on the other side told a very sad tale. And then there is that final moment—the whole purpose of the film—when Paulson realized he might get screwed by the banks…and he and we did.

When Bernanke ruminates out loud about whether or not the banks will actually use the money they are given to make loans and get the economy going again, it reminded me of a similar moment in the film Three Days of the Condor, when Max von Sydow turns to a confident Robert Redford who has just sent the incriminating evidence to the New York Times. Sydow asks, “But will they print it?”

Despite all the film’s and book’s flaws, one point—and probably THE point—comes across loud and clear: we are all the victims, including the rich and powerful who think they are pulling the strings, of the financial institutions. If we want to see real change, we have to put into Congress politicians who actually represent the people and will look out for our best interests, not theirs. But after every election, we are left like Bernanke and Sydow, asking, “Will they do it?”

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By mrfreeze, May 25, 2011 at 9:35 am Link to this comment

a correction: “none will ever be prosecuted for his/her crimes.” Sorry about the bad grammar.

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By mrfreeze, May 25, 2011 at 9:34 am Link to this comment

To this very moment, I am still dumbfounded and incredibly angry that none of the “players” in the financial scam that took the world economy down, NONE is or will ever be prosecuted for their crimes.

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By TAO Walker, May 25, 2011 at 8:50 am Link to this comment

The thing is, Robert Scheer here (like most of his fellah-‘n’-gal scribes and the vast majority of those commenting on his and their punditry) is no less obsessed with the make-believe CONceit of “money” (and the lately gone-“global” CONfidence scheme CONstructed on its rotten “foundation”), than are any and all of those “evil banksters” (and their “great game” CONspiracy) that Scheer and all of the carpers so often take so “self”-righteously to task for “those people’s” thoroughly “rational”-ized (by virtually ever “one”) willingness and grotesquely over-developed ability to ruthlessly manipulate the damned thing’s “financial” apparatus (for all it’s worth) to their own “private profit” and exclusive “self”-aggrandizement.  Getting terminally trapped in the degenerate delusions of this inch-deep-but-nonetheless-totally-toxic cesspool of CONtrived triviality and semantic legerdemain is but one of those awful CONsequences The Ancients cautioned against when (after learning it the-hard-way) they recorded that: 


The Way, The Tao, of Humanity is in our given Organic Function as a vital component in our Mother Earth’s immune system.  The Living Virtue of Organic Functional Integrity, The Medicine for what ails both our Mother and Her tame two-legged Children, is available to us only in our Natural Organic Form….call it Genuine Living Human Community….The Tiyoshpaye Way.  Without it, ideologically/institutionally/technologically isolated from it, the atomized masses of the “individual”-ized sub-species homo domesticus are (to be perhaps too blunt about it) just so much shit-out-of-luck.

Maybe it’s the sheer mind-boggling magnitude of their mostly “self”-inflicted predicament that has the vast bulk of them preferring to squander their precious attention on the merely superficial, rather than giving it wholly undivided to the inescapably substantial, Her Living Arrangement….as our domesticated Sisters and Brothers do so reflexively even here, on this “blog” that might much more accurately be called “truthscratch-the-surface.”


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By peterjkraus, May 25, 2011 at 7:44 am Link to this comment

Another example of embedded journalism posing as
The Search For Truth instead of admitting to
being what it truly is: a modern form of public
relations-style hagiography by well-paid stooges.

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By sharonsj, May 25, 2011 at 7:44 am Link to this comment

90% of the American public was against TARP. The film makes it seem as though only TARP saved us from a fate worse than the Great Depression.

Meanwhile, TARP has resulted in (1) Wall St. getting rich again, (2) mergers that now make these institutions bigger than too big to fail, and (3) the impoverishment of ordinary Americans.

And making Paulson, Bernanke and Geithner the heroes is laughable.  Well, not so much funny as the kind of hysteria that leads to tears.

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By Ed Lytwak, May 25, 2011 at 7:43 am Link to this comment

Its not really a question of “if” the banks were too big to fail its more that they are too big to jail.  Or put another way, the jail has been privatized.”  If one thing was clear, it was that there was fundamentally no difference between the banksters, the regulators and the executive branch of government which enforces the laws.  I had the same reaction after watching “Inside Job”  the bigger the crime the more it pays.

But none of this should be a surprise to any progressives who get most of their information from alternative media sites like OpEdNews or Alternet.  What progressives don’t seem to be getting from “docudramas” like this is that not just America but the global capitalist financial system was on the verge of collapse – the long awaited self-destruction of the economic system that has ruled the world for at least the last 200 years.

Another thing that some good folks seem to be missing is that this would have caused unbelieveable economic disruption, hardship and suffering for almost every one.  Almost everyone that is except for the richest plutocrats whose money would help mitigate the effects of an economic catastrophe that would have made the Great Depression look like a Wall Street hiccup.

As hard as this would have been for most people, it would have been a case of no pain, no gain.  Lots of people are suffering anyway and we still have the plutocratic parasites more powerful than ever – and with Obama the prospect of things getting worse not better.  Personally, I would have gladly taken my chances and taken my lumps but given the “democracy” we have that was never an option. 

Another thing that the movie didn’t even hint at was that after the economic collapse a new a presumably “better” economic system would have arisen.  But everyone like myself, who found this very depressing there is hope and its names are those of lions guarding the NYC library “patience” and “fortitude.”  As the Obama Administration and Congress make absolutely clear, they haven’t learned a fracking thing and the collapse will come, just not as soon as we would have liked.

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By Mike789, May 25, 2011 at 5:34 am Link to this comment

Yep, took in the movie last night on HBO and found myself yelling obscenities at the TV screen. There may have been a sense of angst and impending doom amidst the prime movers in their attempt to quell market forces, but as Mr Sheer so rightly explain, certain pivotal issues were deliberately avoided. Sheila Baire shows up for one single statement toward the end and in that regard not a whit about deregulation with the exception of Paulson’s rationalization that everybody was making too much money to give a damn. Goldman Sachs is actually shown to be quite benign and no mention of dark trades off the books nor the set up to bilk their clients. Okay, the movie lives up to the title in a one dimensional manner, but overall not a comprehensive view.

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By par4, May 25, 2011 at 4:47 am Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

WTF? If it’s misleading,like most of the crap on TV and in the movies, why bother watching it.

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By AMeshiea, May 25, 2011 at 4:45 am Link to this comment

Nice article.

Sorkin represents embedded Journalism a la Wall Street.

Sadly I forced myself to read the book “Too Big to
Fail,” knowing the hundreds of thousands of others that
read it would fail to notice its homo-erotic fawning
over the architects of the biggest heist in human

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