HBO's Too Big to Fail: A star-filled, Romper Room version of economic collapse that entertains
If there was an Emmy award for making the mundane machinations of a tedious industry into compelling television, HBO would be a shoo-in for top honors.
That's how successfully its TV movie adaptation of the bestselling book on the financial crisis, Too Big to Fail, turns the mortgage meltdown into a nail-biting suspense film on the order of the Cuban missile crisis.
In the debut at 9 tonight, the near-collapse of the nation's economy is reduced to a war of personalities among the world's top businessmen, topped by William Hurt's savvy, professorial take on Bush-era Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson and professional jerkwad James Woods as Lehman Brothers chief executive Richard Fuld.
This is a world where government officials avoid using the word "bailout"— a Treasury Department media maven played by Sex and the City's Cynthia Nixon insists on calling the $26.3 billion lent by the government to help JPMorgan Chase & Co. buy Bear Stearns a "very large purchase assistance package."
But that "package" turned out to be a Band-Aid on a bullet wound, as investment bank Lehman Brothers collapsed and global insurance company AIG also saw its existence threatened by years of unregulated sales handing mortgages to people who couldn't afford them.
As these companies' troubles threatened the stability of the entire U.S. financial system, Too Big to Fail shows these masters of the universe shifting around key elements of the world's economy between bouts of birdwatching, games of squash and their grandchildren's birthday parties.
And what's most frightening about the film's story line — based on the bestselling book by New York Times reporter Andrew Ross Sorkin — is that its simple personifications of these world-shaking dynamics might actually be true.
If there is a clear villain in HBO's tale, it is Wood's Fuld, too blinded by greed and pride to cut a purchase deal with Warren Buffett early on, which might have saved his 158-year-old company from bankruptcy.
Fuld becomes the embodiement of all the qualities that led Wall Street down this horrific rabbit hole, from blaming customers for taking the easy loans his firm foisted on the public to insisting that the value of real estate would rebound and badly misjudging the scope of the growing crisis.
Following closely behind in blame are government officials, personified by Hurt's masterful take on Paulson (who never seemed so in control in real life), and a heavily bearded Paul Giamatti in buttoned-down mode as Federal Reserve chairman Ben Bernanke.
"We've always been behind," moans Hirt-as-Paulson, while the film become a litany of missed opportunities and miscalculations on the government's side. Later, a Chinese official warns him "the amount of debt your country carries is a terrible vulnerability," in a scene that could be taken from a tea party campaign commercial.
This is the Romper Room version of the economic collapse, as seen from 30,000 feet — but delivered with star-filled panache.
Some portrayals here fly by so fast, you can't help wanting more. Why only two scenes with Ed Asner as Warren Buffett, credited helpfully onscreen as "world's richest man?" (given the real-life Buffett's sidesplitting cameo on last week's Office episode, maybe they should have just gotten the actual guy) Emmy winner Tony Shalhoub (Monk), Matthew Modine and Bill Pullman also skate by in too-brief appearances.
Director Curtis Hanson (8 Mile, L.A. Confidential) handles this territory expertly, encompassing huge trends in simple scenes and wrapping up giant lessons in a handful of memorable lines.
For some viewers, this may feel like a civics test disguised as a savvy TV movie. For others, it's a simple recap of a historic economic collapse not three years past.
But if you're willing to wade in the weeds a bit — and look out for small, rewarding details — there's a surprisingly entertaining story about the weaknesses of the men in the charcoal gray businesses suits who nearly unraveled our economic universe.
The only question you may have left, which Hanson never gets near, is whether they've learned anything new since then.