This review later appeared on January Magazine’s website.
When Hollywood decided to adapt The Bonfire of the Vanities, Oscar-winner William Hurt’s name was on the short list to play Sherman McCoy, the Wall Street “Master of the Universe” who finds himself having a very bad year. That role went to Tom Hanks, but twenty-plus years later, William Hurt headlines HBO’s very good adaptation of Too Big To Fail. Hurt plays Treasury Secretary Hank Paulson, a former Wall Street master who finds himself having a very bad few months in 2008. The stakes here, are much higher — instead of a murder charge, Paulson faces the complete meltdown of the financial system world-wide.
While Paulson is the haunted center and Hurt the top-billed actor in this adaptation of Andrew Ross Sorkin’s international best seller, he is not without support. Director Curtis Hanson, of the classic L.A. Confidential, Wonder Boys and the less-than-classic The River Wild, stuffs the film with…well, every character actor in the history of ever. While that’s an exaggeration, calling the ensemble cast of Too Big To Fail a Murderer’s Row of talent is not. This review could very easily sell you on the picture by listing off who’s in it — when you have Dan Hedeya (as powerful Congressman Barney Frank) and John Heard (as Lehmann Brothers CFO Joe Gregory) show up for a single scene a piece, you know Hanson and his casting directors mean business.
The cast is by far the strongest part of Hanson’s movie. The director, working from a script by Peter Gould (Breaking Bad), uses the all-star cast as a kind of shorthand. While animated subtitles inform the audience to folks’ names and jobs, Hanson understands the baggage certain actors bring to their parts as well. So yes, it makes perfect sense that James Woods is the arrogant, self-destructive Dick Fuld, CEO of Lehmann Brothers, whose reluctance to sell his company kicks the whole thing off. (Woods’ first line is a word the actor is familiar with, and that is “motherfucker”.)
We should all listen to Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke, because he’s played by the darkly funny and very serious Paul Giamatti, and heed the sage advice of Warren Buffett, because he’s the grandfatherly Edward Asner. When you put JP Morgan Chase CEO Jamie Dimon in a room with other executives to find a way to bail out Lehmann, you know Dimon’s running the room, because the man speaking his dialogue is former President Bill Pullman. And you know, no matter what, Matthew Modine will find a way to make Merril Lynch CEO John Thain look like a doofus, because, well, Matthew Modine plays a lot of doofuses.
Those are just a few of the names in the cast of Too Big To Fail, and I’m neglecting others, like Billy Crudup’s Timothy Geitner and Topher Grace and Cynthia Nixon as Treasury aides. I’m also not emphasizing just how good Hurt is as Paulson at portraying the crushing guilt that comes with both causing the financial crisis of the film (as Paulson lobbied for deregulation while in charge at Goldman Sachs) and desperate to fix it. Hurt makes Paulson into a guy with real regrets who becomes frayed over the course of the picture. He’s good at selling the big moments — threatening CEOS with the weight of the federal government — and the smaller ones, like casually remarking that nobody did anything to stop deregulation because “We were making too much money.” It’s a fantastic performance, and a sign that audiences never really lost William Hurt — he just went away for a while.
If the film has flaws that keep it from being a great addition to HBO’s ongoing efforts to dramatize all of American history, it’s that the film often feels like not enough time is spent with these characters. Too Big to Fail plays like a thriller, and it’s a terribly exciting movie at times, but there are moments, especially early on, when I found myself wishing the whole thing were longer. This could have easily been spread out over two nights.
Stretching it out, however, may have eliminated the pace of Hanson’s direction, which is crisp, solid, and while it doesn’t reach the heights of his classic work, it’s still a solid entry from the journeyman filmmaker. Hanson breaks up the tension with some moments of real humor (mostly from the deadpans provided by Mssrs. Grace and Giamatti), as well as stopping the action to explain what a sub-prime mortgage is and how it caused the crisis about halfway through the film — without missing a beat. That scene, by the way, is succinct and informative enough to be taught in schools for years to come, and it’s to Gould’s credit as a writer that he indulges in hand-holding a few times throughout the course of the picture.
Too Big To Fail is not a perfect film, nor is it in the top-tier of HBO’s continuing efforts to chronicle all of American history. Its length, and over-reliance on some of the character “sketching” through its casting keep it from being on the level of a Path To War. But it is an engaging, entertaining movie for adults that’s a welcome antidote to the summer months. So if you want answers about how we got into the mess we find ourselves in, or are just looking to watch a bunch of really great actors act their butts off, this might be a film you’ll enjoy.