Curtis Hanson's "Too Big to Fail," now enjoying multiple rebroadcasts on HBO, is a superbly tense and lucid movie about the 2008 financial meltdown. Skillfully drawn from Andrew Ross Sorkin's best-seller, it succeeds in transforming the back-room attempts to cool off the meltdown into a tragicomic fable for our time. It makes multiple bouts of cell-phone tag as urgently compelling as "The Social Network" made dueling keyboards.
The Sun website ran an initial review by a critic who confessed that the very subject made his head hurt. But in Ken Tucker's smart, breezy paean to the show for Entertainment Weekly, he recognized that Hanson and screenwriter Peter Gould create something "extravagantly entertaining" out of "a huge cast in business suits talking about the screwed-up system that allowed millions of hard-working Americans to lose their homes."
The filmmakers do it without white-washing Sorkin's group portrait of avarice and cowardice. The stand-outs in the rogues' gallery include James Woods, who imbues Lehman Brothers CEO Dick Fuld with a Shakespearean hubris, and Tony Shalhoub, who divests himself of any hint of "Monk" to characterize Morgan Stanley CEO John Mack with a spine-bracing brusqueness.
But what makes the movie click is the way Hanson gets every performer to convey the mix of virtuoso calculation and survival instincts that once made their real-life characters not merely Tom Wolfe's masters of the universe, but masters of the masters of the universe.
Against them, Hanson and Gould position two wise men. William Hurt's Treasury Secretary Hank Paulson, the former Goldman Sachs CEO, struggles to keep a near fatally-diseased financial system on life-support while cobbling together a potential cure. Paul Giamatti's Ben Bernanke, the Chairman of the Federal Reserve, at crucial turns manages to whip ridiculously selfish Wall Street honchos and understandably skeptical Congressional leaders into accepting Paulson's emergency plans.In the most remarkable characterization of Hurt's career, he makes Paulson's combination of pragmatism and rectitude quietly heroic. In one exhilarating piece of direction, camerawork and performance, he swoops into a meeting of Democrats, and drops to his knees in front of Nancy Pelosi -- and you feel all the anguish, desperation, humor, and, yes, gallantry of the moment.
Giamatti gives Bernanke a distinctive, saturnine self-awareness that makes this intellectual character both startling and moving. When he spits out the simple truth about an impending Great Depression, he knows that he's displaying every ounce of his anxiety and fear.
Hanson's "Too Bad to Fail" may be the closest Americans have yet come to echoing the classic political suspense films of that great Italian Francesco Rosi, who made art out of journalism by wringing every nuance from the historical record.
But it has the moral framework of a modern western, with Hurt's Paulson and Giamatti's Bernanke trying to dictate good behavior as best they can in financial frontiers that don't have any rules. They don't get to ride victorious into a picturesque sunset. They're left wondering whether the bankers they save will ever do the right things.