Tim Goodman on HBO's Wall Street Crash Film 'Too Big to Fail'

HBO Films
William Hurt turns in powerful performance as U.S. Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson in a mesmerizing movie from HBO on the near-economic implosion of 2008 that everyone should watch

The political drama, based on Andrew Ross Sorkin's best-selling book, airs May 23.


It could be that the average American won’t want to relive this country’s harrowing near-economic 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 that had a global effect, involved two presidents and inexplicably rewarded the people who got the country into the mess by making them richer and more powerful when it was over.

If, in fact, it really is over — or just taking a breather.

And yet HBO’s 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 forgot just how great he can be.

Hurt stars at 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.

Curtis Hanson does a superb job of directing Fail from a script by Peter Gould. Although Gould gets credit for winnowing down Sorkin’s book — and gets a free pass for the necessary expository elements in the film that would otherwise baffle most viewers — Hanson manages to keep the film hyperfocused on how little time there was to untangle a mess that dates to deregulation pushed by former Presidents Reagan, Clinton and Bush. Hanson also effectively projects how Paulson, Geithner, Bernanke and a slew of other bright minds tried to pull the economy from the brink knowing that if they failed, the Great Depression would look, historically, like a small correction; and if they succeeded, they would be eviscerated for bailing out and coddling those who got the country into the mess in the first place.

This is where Hurt really shines — being overwhelmed by the implications of failure but smart and tough enough to round up the private-sector power players from the financial world and force them to work together.

James Woods plays Dick Fuld, chairman and CEO of Lehman Bros., who comes off, in a group complicit in greed and mismanagement, as the worst of the lot. Bill Pullman is Jamie Dimon, chairman and CEO of JPMorgan Chase; Matthew Modine is John Thain, chairman and CEO of Merrill Lynch; Tony Shalhoub is John Mack, chairman and CEO of Morgan Stanley; Victor Slezak is Greg Curl, director of planning at Bank of America; Ajay Mehta is Vikram Pandit, CEO of Citigroup; Evan Handler is Lloyd Blankfein, chairman and CEO of Goldman Sachs; and John Heard is Joe Gregory, president and COO of Lehman Bros.

See? A lot of stars for a lot of roles. But it doesn’t end there.

Cynthia Nixon is Michele Davis, assistant secretary of the Treasury for Public Affairs and director of policy planning; Topher Grace is Jim Wilkinson, Paulson’s chief of staff; Joey Slotnick is Dan Jester, a retired Goldman Sachs banker and new (and necessary) Paulson adviser; Michael O’Keefe is Chris Flowers, a bank-takeover expert; and numerous other actors appear who only get precious few minutes of screen time.

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, with their names and titles flashing onscreen. And you thought David Simon was the master of dense stories and endless characters. 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 onslaught — and the fresh but forcibly forgotten memories the events bring forth — then they can exhale for the duration, as Hanson deftly steers the behemoth toward a conclusion and Hurt’s performance allows for a sympathetic character. You may not like or agree with Paulson, but Hurt shows you how, in public service, the burden on keeping the country afloat took its toll.

There might be no heroes in Fail, and the onscreen narrative wrap-up can’t possibly tie a bow on what happened or explain the repercussions, but somebody had to take a stab at this story, and you’ll be glad you took a couple of hours to recall the fall.



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