'Too Big to Fail' - TV Review

Macall Polay/HBO

HBO pulls off the improbable: an economics lesson for everyone.

It could be that the average American won't want to relive this country's harrowing economic near-implosion of 2008, even with an HBO movie that has more stars than screen time available for them. Maybe, in 2011, the average American hasn't recovered enough from those hard times to even afford HBO. It could also be that a movie that runs less than two hours can't possibly explain the enormously complicated financial crisis.

And yet Too Big to Fail is mesmerizing, and if you can call watching an economics lesson from hell entertaining, then yes, it's entertaining.

Credit HBO for even tackling the subject, based on the best-selling book by New York Times reporter Andrew Ross Sorkin. No film studio would want to produce a complicated and ultimately depressing story about how greed nearly took down Wall Street and the entire economic infrastructure of First World countries. Gordon Gekko is one thing, a cadre of people -- real people -- far worse than he is probably not going to be a popcorn movie.

But damned if Fail doesn't whittle down the whole sorry story into a mostly understandable and efficient movie that everybody should watch. And in a cast full of beautifully minimalist performances from superb actors, William Hurt gets to remind viewers who might have otherwise forgotten just how great he can be.

Hurt stars as Henry Paulson, the U.S. Treasury secretary and former CEO of Goldman Sachs. Billy Crudup is Timothy Geithner, president of the Federal Reserve Bank of New York. Paul Giamatti is Ben Bernanke, chairman of the Federal Reserve. Edward Asner is Warren Buffett, chairman and CEO of Berkshire Hathaway and a man who comes out of this film looking like the citizen superhero of economics. Then there's James Woods, Bill Pullman, Matthew Modine, Cynthia Nixon, Topher Grace, Tony Shalhoub -- it seems everybody wanted a part in Fail.

The most difficult part of this film for viewers will be surviving the first 20 minutes, when nearly all of the players are introduced. Toss in a couple of economic lessons and cursory mentions of how the Fed, the Treasury, the banks and insurance companies all work together and, well, it's not the sex and swords of Camelot.

If viewers can survive the information load -- as director Curtis Hanson deftly steers the behemoth toward a conclusion -- Hurt's performance allows for a sympathetic character and shows you how, in public service, the burden on keeping the country afloat took its toll.

Airdate 9 p.m. Monday, May 23 (HBO)