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Saturday, June 12, 2010

The Last Days of Lehman Brothers (2009)

This will be a little off our usual topics, but as it is financial news related I felt I should post it here as well. I originally penned this for the other blog I contribute to, Audio/Visual Anthropology, but the subject matter of the production warrants a place here. If nothing else, it mixes things up a little around here. 


Normally made-for-TV movies about recent events are full of overacting, simplistic dialog, one-dimensional characters, annoying narrators providing lousy framing devices, and occasional irritating music. The Last Days of Lehman Brothers (from here on TLDOLB) suffers from these typical shortcomings, but not to the extent that some of these endeavors do.

Before continuing, I must preface that I have an unusual interest in the subject matter. If you simply do not care about the financial crisis that was in its most frightening throes about 21 months ago, then there might be no reason to watch this very brief attempt to humanize the cryptic figures behind our financial system's most epic failure. If you are not familiar with the events, there is little to help you. Indeed, there are no explanations saying "This is Jamie Dimon, CEO of JP Morgan Chase". When they refer to some of these individuals by first names or last names, you are almost entirely unaware of who they are if you do not follow financial news. Nonetheless, I think that there would be some value in watching it even with no familiarity since this production does depict the weekend in September 2008 that has so profoundly shaped our current world. More importantly, it does so passably. As such, I feel it is worth the investment (excuse my word choice). After all, the run time is only 60 minutes. Unfortunately, the CNBC version is shorter and cuts out some scenes entirely.

The length is strangely enough a small advantage. Most of its ilk run around 100 minutes and often truly do not have that amount of material available so we are inundated with introductions to characters that we will not care about because the slapped together screenplay is too incompetent to make us care. TLDOLB waltzes somewhat into the opposite problem. It starts hot and heavy right in the midst of the maelstrom and often cuts through key moments without really explaining what is going on. Once again, if you followed the crisis there is some inside baseball you might, emphasize might, understand that terse references to other events.

As for the character portrayals, the omnipresent James Cromwell does a competent job in his role as former Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson as he tries to manage the crisis while appearing to be a champion of the public's tax dollars. Paulson is clearly written as a fairly one dimensional character in a paternalistic role while the short-sighted and incompetent bank executives attempt to realize exactly the amount of trouble they are in. Maybe that is a fair depiction of Paulson, maybe it isn't, but I thought Cromwell did a respectable job with what he was given. In truth, given the run-time, they probably did not have much choice but to go with this simplistic approach.

Then there is Dick Fuld, CEO of Lehman Brothers, played by Corey Johnson. "Who is Corey Johnson?", you might ask? Well, good question, but you likely have seen him as one of the nearly nameless Americans in The Mummy, or Major Kent in a few episodes of Band of Brothers, or, good Lord, as one of the characters in United 93. I'll let that last one pass without comment. In any case, I am a little torn on whether his portrayal was plagued by overacting or if that was a fair depiction of the bombastic nature of New York bankers. From everything I've observed, it seems fair so I will grant him the benefit of the doubt. In truth, the bombast is somewhat enjoyable as is watching him succumb to his own hubris, albeit some of the lines are cringe-worthy. "This place is my life! Did you think I would let it go down?" That is but one example of the clunky lines that spewed forth.

One supporting character I thoroughly enjoyed was the witty and enigmatic portrayal by James Bolam of Ken Lewis, CEO of Bank of America, who I think is shown to be more competent than he was, but he is fun to watch. At one point, he goes into a discussion about modern art as a metaphor for the changing world of banking which concludes with a little slam at Francis Bacon (the 20th century painter, not the 16th century philosopher). I enjoyed that because I've never been much of an appreciator of Bacon's work. When Lewis says "Do you know what his paintings look like?" in a horrified tone, I chuckled.

In terms of major faults, the most significant, I felt, was the choice to use a nondescript, pointless narrator to introduce and conclude the production. I haven't the slightest clue who the actor was, nor do I care. His role was meaningless as some executive assistant to Fuld. I couldn't tell exactly. He only has a few scenes and what little there is happens to be eminently forgettable. That is true to the point when there narrator returns at the end you can be forgiven for saying "Who is this guy?" In my opinion, either narrow our view of the collapse to just what the narrator's character would see, which would have made it fairly interesting because there would have been some mystery to it all, or cut him out altogether. Instead, he mainly just disappears after his introduction.

The sporadic music is basically pointless as well. They might as well have cut it out altogether, though the whimsical little piece that plays as Fuld gets hit in the face by one of his employees tied that scene together. That does present another issue, however: the tone is entirely inconsistent. At times, it seems to be trying to go for the anguish that Fuld feels as his empire crumbles around him while at some other times it seems to be trying to portray a farce. Now, if better executed, the juxtaposition might have worked well because, in truth, it all was a tragic farce. Unfortunately, the execution was lacking.

On the whole, the 6.5 out of 10 that TLDOLB earns on IMDB is probably about fair. It's hardly a masterpiece, but for its genre, which is quite weak, it makes for decent watching. I have certainly watched worse in the space of an hour on television.

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