HBO Brings Lehman Demise to Primetime


It still holds true that yesterday’s crises make today’s television hits, and tonight is the HBO debut of Too Big to Fail, based on New York Times writer Andrew Ross Sorkin’s eponymous book.

The movie depicts the failure of Lehman Brothers during the financial crisis of 2008. In high praise, Michael Kinsley writes, “I’ve never come closer than the two minutes after watching Too Big to Fail to understanding what a “credit default swap” is.” 

A suitably start-studded cast includes William Hurt in the role of former Treasury secretary Henry M. “Hank” Paulson Jr.; Billy Crudup as Tim Geithner, and Paul Giamatti as Ben Bernanke. But equal weight goes to CNBC and their anchors.[more]

The NBCU-owned news channel’s on-air talent are shown as front and center in trafficking information between Wall Street and the government. A key scene portrays Paulson telling his staff to leak to the media that there will not be government aid for Lehman; the next scene shows Lehman execs watching CNBC and absorbing Paulson’s directive.

CNBC anchors, including Michelle Caruso-Cabrera, refilmed their original reporting for the movie: “As it was happening we knew we were on the front lines of something historic, so it makes sense that HBO would use CNBC as the voice, but it was thrilling and gratifying to actually watch it,” she told the New York Times.

Colleague Erin Burnett, then a CNBC anchor who’s now at CNN, added she had “something like five outfits” for reshoots which were “done in less than half an hour.”

For the use of the CNBC play-by-play, HBO’s parent Time Warner struck a licensing deal with CNBC, now controlled by Comcast’s NBCUniversal, as well as with CNN, which they own.

The movie’s a reminder of the former belief that Wall Street’s leading financial brands were bullet-proof — and the role of the media in molding and shaping our perceptions.