Sunday, May 22, 2011

"Too Big to Fail" captures the spirit of financial crisis

Some have criticized the HBO movie "Too Big to Fail," which debuts Monday at 9 p.m., as trying to cram too many characters and two much material into about an hour and a half. I say that somewhat overstuffed feeling is what makes the movie -- which depicts the Wall Street financial crisis of 2008 and Washington's response to it -- so effective. This, after all, was a major event in the country -- and one that many Americans might not have fully understood. So, if the movie, so packed with characters and well-known actors, feels a little chaotic and overwhelming, isn't that kind of appropriate?

William Hurt stars as Treasury Secretary Henry "Hank" Paulson, who, as the film opens, is trying to save the collapsing Lehman Brothers. Lehman was just the tip of the iceberg, and the film follows Paulson and his colleagues as the try to keep this financial fire from burning the country down. Directed by Curtis Hanson, whose films include the crime drama "L.A. Confidential," "Too Big Too Fail" has the feel of a thriller. With every scene, you kind of feel of fate of the country hanging in the balance. The film, based on a best-selling book, is tense, smart, and manages to give snap and tension to what is, essentially, a series of long scenes of people sitting around tables talking about banking.
Yes, there are many, many well-known actors in this, ranging from Paul Giamatti (as Federal Reserve chairman Ben Bernanke) to James Woods (as Lehman Brothers chief Dick Fuld) to Cynthia Nixon (playing one of Paulson's staff). Yes, the movie feels so packed that few of the actors -- other than Hurt -- get much screen times. However, some do make the most of their few moments on screen. Billy Crudup, whom I haven't liked in anything in a while, gives a nice performance as Timothy Geithner and Tony Shalhoub brings his customary verve to Morgan Stanley chief John Mack. Topher Grace is also fun (if a bit obvious) as Paulson's devastatingly sarcastic chief of staff.
And, of course, there's Hurt, whose centerpiece performance as Paulson is a gripping, sympathetic portrait of a man reaching the end of his rope. It's not an obvious Emmy grab, like Kate Winslet's performance in HBO's recent Mildred Pierce miniseries, but it's solid, thoughtful work. "Solid" and "thoughtful" can also be used to describe the whole movie.
"Too Big to Fail" tries to make sense of a particularly complicated piece of recent American history. It could have been dry, dull stuff. Instead, Hanson and company have made an involving and, yes, entertaining film.

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