Ellen Gray: 'Big' tells inside story of Wall Street crisis

William Hurt portrays Treasury Secrectary Henry Paulson.
William Hurt portrays Treasury Secrectary Henry Paulson.
Posted: May 23, 2011

TOO BIG TO FAIL. 9 tonight, HBO.

THE LABEL "too big to fail" isn't limited to financial institutions.

Pack a movie based on a respected reporter's best-selling book with distinguished actors, place it in the hands of an equally distinguished director and schedule it for HBO and you can almost guarantee a project that people who love serious television are going to be dying to see.

And as someone who's been known to love serious television myself, I'm certainly not going to try to steer you away from "Too Big to Fail," filmed from Peter Gould's adaptation of Andrew Ross Sorkin's book about the 2008 financial crisis.

Directed by Oscar winner Curtis Hanson ("L.A. Confidential"), its stars include Oscar winner William Hurt, Emmy winner Paul Giamatti, seven-time Emmy winner Ed Asner and a slew of other oft-honored actors, most of whom are used to getting a bit more face time than they do here.

Not even recognizable faces, though, can free a docudrama from the need to identify its characters, either on-screen or in laborious exposition, and even with that, you might wish for a scorecard to remind you that Topher Grace, for instance, is playing Jim Wilkinson, "chief of staff, Treasury."

(Asner's Warren Buffett is simply described as "world's richest man.")

Hurt plays U.S. Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson as a man caught between his belief that government shouldn't cover Wall Street's bad bets and the need to do something to prevent a meltdown of the financial system.

Giamatti is soft-spoken but insistent as Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke, whose dour breakfast meetings with Paulson at least bring them face to face, providing a welcome break from scenes that too often rely - as the real-life players no doubt did - on cell and speaker phones to keep characters in touch.

So what, other than educating (and, of course, outraging) viewers about our fragile, interdependent economy - and about the government's ties to Wall Street - is "Too Big to Fail" attempting to succeed at?

"I think that what we're really trying to do is to tease out what it looked like from the inside," the screenwriter, Gould, told reporters in January. "What did it look like inside the submarine while they were working on this crisis? . . . Ultimately it is a disaster movie, and so you have people who are coping with this disaster under a lot of stress. And that's when you see what they're really made out of."

"None of these characters are black-and-white. They're all very gray," noted Sorkin, who's also a co-producer on the film. "There are moments when you think someone is the good guy, and they're really the bad guy. And there are moments where you think the bad guy is really the good guy. And there are moments where you want to take them up by the collar and say, 'What the heck are you doing?' "

All true.

This is undeniably an important story, told in a relatively no-nonsense fashion, about a complex set of events that even people who watch PBS' "Frontline" regularly may still be flummoxed by. And it's one we really do need to understand.

As boardroom dramas go, "Too Big to Fail" is bigger on intrigue - and backbiting - than "Celebrity Apprentice."

And, yes, it's a disaster movie.

I just hope you're not expecting special effects.

Or a Hollywood ending. *

Send email to graye@phillynews.com.

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