TV: HBO’s ‘Too Big to Fail,’ and too soon to find catharsis in our economic meltdown

Hank Stuever
TV critic May 20, 2011

HBO Films — the Emmy-collecting, moviemaking arm of the cable network — seems to prefer projects that all sound like costume dramas for news junkies who mostly consume media with “New York” in the title: The New Yorker, New York magazine and, of course, the great gray lady herself, where one imagines an HBO movie deal is probably as good as any Pulitzer.

In that spirit, “Too Big to Fail” is the HBO movie version of New York Times financial columnist Andrew Ross Sorkin’s essential book of the same name, a play-by-play retelling of the 2008 economic meltdown. It premieres Monday night to the expectation that, when the right talents are convened, something as complicated as the mortgage bust, the Lehman Brothers collapse and the emergency Troubled Asset Relief Program can be respun into grippingly dramatic gold.

Hank Stuever has been The Post's TV critic since 2009. He joined the paper in 1999 as a writer for the Style section, where he has covered an array of popular (and unpopular) culture across the nation. View Archive

Not quite so. Though it tries valiantly to walk us through its narrative gravitas, “Too Big to Fail” is as daunting and depressing as its subject, a dreaded homework assignment for an audience who will mainly nod in assent when its real-life characters (fictional versions of Neel Kashkari, Henry Paulson, Warren Buffett) quip and soliloquize on the audacity of greedy investors and deluded homebuyers alike. The film is 98 minutes long and seems about 100 minutes longer; it is a denunciation of things already denounced to no lasting avail — mainly the American dream of McMansion ownership paired with the dream of barely regulated capitalism.

And, even if economists have declared the Great Recession theoretically behind us (now that CEOs are making more money than ever and the nation’s legal debt limit has been reached), it is still somehow Too Soon to Enjoy “Too Big to Fail.” The movie may do an adequate job of mining what’s left of our collective outrage, but it comes up short as an artistic expression of post-recession catharsis.

The fixation, as ever with such films, zeroes in on that much-sought intersection of power and politics, where dramatic ambitions are applied to already dramatic journalistic accounts of recent history and casts are assembled in the spirit of the “The Towering Inferno” era of all-star clusters.

On that score, “Too Big to Fail” features dozens of speaking parts for middle-aged, mostly male actors who come and go, as if partaking in a massive pantomime of a Wikipedia entry on the subject. The CEOs of America’s major banks and investment firms (boo, hiss) are played by Bill Pullman, Tony Shalhoub, Matthew Modine and a host of others. At Lehman, a bilious James Woods has been aptly cast in full hubris mode as its doomed chairman, Dick Fuld.

At New York’s Federal Reserve Bank, we have Billy Crudup playing a wee Timothy Geithner. With assistance from a bleached-white beard, Paul Giamatti is easily transformed into Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke, queasily trying to keep his oatmeal down during weekly worrisome breakfasts with then-Treasury Secretary Paulson. When the action moves to Congress, we are treated with eerie approximations of Barney Frank (Dan Hedaya), Nancy Pelosi (Linda Glick) and the gang.

The movie, directed by Curtis Hanson (“L.A. Confidential”; “In Her Shoes”) from a screenplay by Peter Gould (“Breaking Bad”), wisely chooses to anchor itself to William Hurt’s anguished take on Paulson, the former Goldman Sachs CEO who realized too late how irrationally exuberant the economy had grown and then (in this telling) heroically tried to keep it from leaping off a Wall Street window ledge. To everyone’s delight — everyone who will get off on this kind of movie, that is — there is the necessary scene of Paulson on bended knee, begging Pelosi to save TARP from defeat in the House.

The instincts behind these projects are noble in spirit and intent: to make a great movie about contemporary history while it is still relevant and within reach, with Alan J. Pakula’s “All the President’s Men” still the gold standard. But they can have varying success. HBO’s “Recount” in 2008, for example, was an ambitious but elegantly focused thriller about the protracted 2000 election results.

“Too Big to Fail” has momentum and a certain wonky remove, but is too epic in scope, as Gould’s script struggles to match the breadth of the original journalism while the actors try to convince us that they understand all their lines. (Who could blame them if they don’t?)

Perhaps the best moment in the film comes as a form of intellectual surrender: During a late-night scene in Paulson’s office, assistant secretary Michele Davis (Cynthia Nixon) tries to wrap her mind around the unfolding crisis so she can ably answer reporters’ questions the next morning. The whole mess is then described in a welcome, screenwritery way that stylistically trades one sort of Sorkin (Andrew Ross) for an unrelated other (Aaron).

These movies are usually much more fun to ponder than they are to watch. Months before it will air, we have already been treated to publicity photos of Julianne Moore’s Sarah Palin and Ed Harris’s John McCain in “Game Change,” the forthcoming HBO adaptation of the dishy book about the 2008 presidential campaign.

I wonder if sometimes we shouldn’t just stop there. Wouldn’t it be just as entertaining to play casting games on the Internet without making a movie?

Too Big to Fail

(98 minutes) premieres Monday at 9 p.m. on HBO.

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