thu 24/07/2014

The Last Days of Lehman Brothers, BBC2 | TV reviews, news & interviews

The Last Days of Lehman Brothers, BBC2

In July the BBC brought us Freefall, writer/director Dominic Savage's credit crunch drama. It was a crude morality tale of greed and gullibility, just about compensating for its blatantly schematic characters with sheer pace. With The Last Days Of Lehman Brothers (BBC2), writer Craig Warner and director Michael Samuels set themselves an altogether trickier proposition, to dramatise the boardroom power-plays that ended in the collapse of American mega-bank Lehman Brothers on September 12 last year.

It was a crash that echoed around the world almost as seismically as that of the Twin Towers. Ever since, we've been saturated in the arcane argot of banking, borrowing and going bust, with its derivatives and sub-primes and marking-to-market. Most of us still have no idea what the economists are talking about, beyond grasping that we'll all be skint in our old age, but what the film-makers have attempted here is to explore the motivations and character-clashes that underpin the carnivorous ecology of Wall Street and its wider relationship with American power and politics. Their only false step is an attempt to "explain" the credit crisis and the mysteries of Collateralised Debt Obligations in the words of a sub-prime victim in Tennessee, a scene which feels suspiciously like heavy-handed network intervention.

Otherwise they got the basic requirements right, namely a sharp, insightful script and a near-perfect squad of actors. Butting heads at centre stage are the spindly yet menacing figure of US Treasury Secretary Hank Paulson (James Cromwell), who is capable of philosophical reflection while being about as sentimental as a stone head on Mount Rushmore, and the burly, beast-like Lehman boss Dick Fuld (Corey Johnson, last spotted as a CIA spook in The Bourne Ultimatum). Both are superb, with Cromwell getting the best lines as he coolly calls the Wall Street bankers to order to try to contain the potential global consequences of the Lehman disaster. "The West is fucked," he declares matter-of-factly. "It's done. It's over."

Fuld, meanwhile, throws things around his his office, punches cushions, bellows at people down the phone and tucks into gargantuan platefuls of ribs ("his nickname's The Gorilla," confides his assistant Zack, who acts as a kind of ironic narrator). Fuld was more like a herd of angry buffalo than a conventional CEO, declaring total war on his rivals and driving his underlings mercilessly to over-leverage Lehman Bros into a vast canyon of debt. The notion that Fuld's world is sliding inexorably beyond his control is brilliantly suggested in a scene where he's caught flailing his arms about absurdly in the men's washroom to try to activate the faulty motion-sensor light switch. It's a moment of irrational inspiration more eloquent than pages of dialogue. As Paulson tries to explain that the game's up, the money has run out and there will be no federal bail-out, Fuld grinds to an uncomprehending halt like a giant machine with its plug pulled. "This isn't the kind of money you can run out of!" he wails, a line which seems to speed to the heart of the delusional bubble-world of the giant bankers.

There's fine support from James Bolam as Bank of America chief Ken Lewis, who relishes his predatory financial sparring with John Thain (Ben Daniels), boss of his takeover target Merrill Lynch, while the sense that Wall Street and Washington can't survive without each other, even if financiers and politicians are at daggers drawn, is evoked with persuasive subtlety. Maybe 12 months isn't quite long enough to have allowed writer Warner to have absorbed and reshaped all the events and their aftermath, but The Last Days... nonetheless imparts a part-satirical, part-mythic ambience to its story. Tonight, BBC2 airs part one of The Love Of Money, a straight documentary treatment of the Lehman saga. It gives you a lot more numbers and facts, but rather less human insight.

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