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Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Lehman's Dick Fuld as the Antagonist in the film, "Too Big to Fail"

The reporter-author of Too Big to Fail, Andrew Ross Sorkin, expressed the following fear as his 600-plus-page book was being made into a movie: "I went into the process I think worried – as I imagine most writers would be – that it would be sexed up and hollywoodized in some other way." To be sure, putting the Dick Fuld (CEO of Lehman Brothers) character into any sort of sex scene would have been counterproductive at best.

As it was, the director of the tv-movie based on Sorkin’s book let the drama inherent in the historical events to lead the narrative. The only quibble I may have with the historical veracity has to do with Bart McDade replacing Joe Gregory as President of Lehman. According to Larry McDonald, a former distressed-bonds trader at Lehman, the replacement also relegated Fuld even as he remained as CEO only to quell the markets. Specifically, on June 11, 2008, “Fuld was effectively deposed,” according to McDonald, “by Bart McDade with the support of the executive committee” (McDonald, p. 297). In the movie, however, Fuld was still in charge even in September of that year, with McDade still bowing to him in front of the Koreans.

While it could be that Sorkin and McDonald have different sources of information on whether there was a coup within Lehman, the film’s director and screenwriter could have kept Fuld in charge to maintain the character as the principal antagonist. Even so, McDonald’s description of McDade confronting Fuld in Fuld’s office and the subsequent decision of Gregory in the conference room to take the stunned CFO, Erin Callan, down with him in front of the executive committee would have made excellent scenes in the movie.

The other change I would have made to the screenplay would give the viewers an improved insight into how the sub-prime crisis could have been allowed to get so bad. Specifically, the Fuld character could have had a flashback to Mike Gelband’s warning on June 7, 2005 in defiance of Fuld that Lehman should get out of the housing-related CDO market; the bank was then leveraged twenty-two times its net worth (McDonald, p. 136). Meeting with Gelband and other senior executives on the 31st floor on that day, Fuld and his allies insinuated that Gelband had some kind of attitude problem that needed to be changed “real fast” (McDonald, p. 138).  As a flashback, this scene would have shown the viewer Fuld’s recklessness in terms of risk (and leverage), and thus how the financial system could have been put in such peril by the “experts”. In fact, in the spring of 2007 Fuld decided to bully and belittle Gelband publically at the bank in order to get him to take on even more risk (McDonald, p. 235). This could have been fused into the “attitude problem” meeting, showing the viewer Fuld’s pathology, which goes beyond a bad temper.

Whether one points to Jim Cayne at Bear Stearns or Dick Fuld at Lehman, the role of pathology in the near-demise of Wall Street could uncover for us how recklessness could have gained such traction. In other words, HBO’s Too Big to Fail could have delved into Fuld’s character beyond having him drop some F-bombs. Speaking on Charlie Rose on the evening of the movie’s premiere, Sorkin marveled that it must be difficult for actors to convey their respective characters in just a few scenes. That is true; however, the director and screenwriter could have brought out Fuld’s pathology (beyond his anger) by a few well-chosen additional scenes. Sometimes what a character says, and to whom, can be more damning than how loud he or she says it. Concerning Fuld, the viewers could have been shaking their heads in utter disbelief rather than simply concluding that the guy is arrogant and has a temper.



Lawrence McDonald, Colossal Failure of Common Sense: The Inside Story of the Collapse of Lehman Brothers (New York: Three River Press, 2009).